Monday, February 26, 2018

The Bard of Montevideo

Susan Jill Levine

AS ITALO CALVINO says in his affectionate introduction to Piano Stories, "Felisberto Hernandez {1902-1964} is a writer like no other: like no European, nor any Latin American. He is an 'irregular'." It is about time that this Uruguayan naif humorist (with his own brand of surrealism, Proustianism and psychoanalysis, as Calvino asserts) has become available to the English-reading public. Included here are his best stories, from the collection No One Had Lit a Lamp (1947), as well as the erotic tall tale "The Daisy Dolls" (1949), his last finished novella, The Flooded House (1960), and "The Stray Horse" (1943). The selection is also prefaced by an enchanting ars poetica, "How Not to Explain My Stories" (1955), and "Just Before Falling Asleep" (1946), on the slippery wiles of memory.

Hernandez earned his modest living as a provincial recital pianist (and, his compatriot Juan Carlos Onetti once remarked, one can only imagine those flea-bitten audiences), gathering weird anecdotes as he wandered from town to town -- hence the appropriate title of this collection. Hernandez himself was a character out of magical realism, with his many marriages, his appetite for food and rotund women, and his grotesque state at death (of leukemia), as translator Luis Harss notes, "his body so bloated it had to be removed through the window in a box as large as a piano.

A master in the "mysteries of the everyday," as Garcia Marquez accurately commented, also adding, "If I hadn't read the stories of Felisberto Hernandez in 1950, I wouldn't be the writer I am today," Hernandez was relatively obscure in his own lifetime. Despite his fanatical fans -- he was often seen in the same cafe in Montevideo spinning tales for his sycophants -- he was obsessed with a sense of failure, perhaps because his production was so minimal. His autobiographical pieces speak of memory and the difficult art of writing; Hernandez said once that he had many anecdotes in his memory, but that he was looking for something else. That "something else" is precisely what we find in his stories.

In a style at once vivid and absent-minded, straightforward and fumbling, Hernandez grasps the ineffability of our desires, among them the urge to write, as in "The Stray Horse": "Not only am I unable to write, but it's a great effort for me to live in the present, to live forward. Without meaning to, I had started to live backward, and there came a moment when I couldn't even live many of the events of that past time . . . But before this tie came loose . . . I was enjoying one of those nights of the past. Although I had been stepping slowly, like a sleepwalker, suddenly I tripped over the wisp of an idea and fell into a moment full of events." The duality of the writer is defined in a lucid comparison with a moneylender who weighs memories "not for their personal value, loaded with private feelings and associates, but for their intrinsic worth."

Hernandez depicts objects, people, sensations and thoughts with wildly unexpected similes and metaphors (he shares with Calvino an intuition for the all-encompassing bizarre detail) such as "my head was like a gym where the thoughts were exercising," or "The piano was a nice person. When I sat close to him, pressing a lot of his white or black fingers with a few of mine, and combining the sounds with our fingers we both felt sad."

These tales provide us with ways of seeing that were hitherto invisible: In "The Usher" the main character's eyes are lights that possess objects and influence people's actions; in "The Woman Who Looked Like Me," the narrator imagines himself a horse and we are suddenly seeing and feeling like a horse: "My eyes . . . were ponds reflecting all sorts of things, big and small, near and far, on their sloped surfaces brightened with tears." Being in that other reality is ultimately what all fiction writers do, but here romanticism's longing to see space from the bird's eye becomes the surrealist sad clown's somersault into the void of non-personality.

One could say that Hernandez sums up his essential uniqueness in "How Not to Explain My Stories": "My only certainty is that I can't say how I write my stories, because each of them has a strange life of its own. But I am also aware of their constant battle against the strangers consciousness keeps urging on them." Borges spoke of the "fantasies of conduct" but none of the Latin American fantasists (with the possible exception of the Cuban Virgilio Pinera) has given such full reign to the primal, associative unconscious as Hernandez has, for example, in his slapstick masterpiece "The Balcony," in which our traveling pianist encounters a reclusive young woman who is in love with her balcony. Objects rebel against their passive roles, parts of the body seem to carry on independent lives, weird Oedipal knots mark the hilariously disconnected gestures of Hernandez's unfathomable characters.

There is a childlike simplicity, almost a refreshing awkwardness in Hernandez's syntax. The translation is occasionally marred by lapses in colloquial usage, particularly in dialogue, as in the comic bagatelle "Lovebird Furniture" ("The Canary Furniture Company," literally), about a dreadful advertising campaign in which private citizens are physically injected with a radio announcement featuring tweeting canaries. Ordinary names are unnecessarily translated throughout the book, and Luis Harss resorts at times to explanations when he cannot find creative solutions; Felisberto Hernandez does not require this kind of rewriting.

Picasso once said of the Sunday painter Rousseau -- surely Hernandez's equivalent in the visual arts -- "Don't forget that the douanier knows the Louvre by heart." Hernandez, too, is not so naif; perhaps the most poignant lesson we can learn from him is that living for us humans is ultimately, tragicomically, the life of the mind.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 1993 in The Washington Post

Friday, February 23, 2018

Utopian for Beginners

Joshua Foer

There are so many ways for speakers of English to see the world. We can glimpse, glance, visualize, view, look, spy, or ogle. Stare, gawk, or gape. Peek, watch, or scrutinize. Each word suggests some subtly different quality: looking implies volition; spying suggests furtiveness; gawking carries an element of social judgment and a sense of surprise. When we try to describe an act of vision, we consider a constellation of available meanings. But if thoughts and words exist on different planes, then expression must always be an act of compromise.

Languages are something of a mess. They evolve over centuries through an unplanned, democratic process that leaves them teeming with irregularities, quirks, and words like “knight.” No one who set out to design a form of communication would ever end up with anything like English, Mandarin, or any of the more than six thousand languages spoken today.

“Natural languages are adequate, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimal,” John Quijada, a fifty-three-year-old former employee of the California State Department of Motor Vehicles, told me. In 2004, he published a monograph on the Internet that was titled “Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language.” Written like a linguistics textbook, the fourteen-page Web site ran to almost a hundred and sixty thousand words. It documented the grammar, syntax, and lexicon of a language that Quijada had spent three decades inventing in his spare time. Ithkuil had never been spoken by anyone other than Quijada, and he assumed that it never would be.

In his preface, Quijada wrote that his “greater goal” was “to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious intellectual effort: an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language, while minimizing the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”

Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”

It wasn’t long after he released his manuscript on the Internet that a small community of language enthusiasts began to recognize what Quijada, a civil servant without an advanced degree, had accomplished. Ithkuil, one Web site declared, “is a monument to human ingenuity and design.” It may be the most complete realization of a quixotic dream that has entranced philosophers for centuries: the creation of a more perfect language.

Ithkuil’s first piece of press was a brief mention in 2004 in a Russian popular-science magazine called Computerra. An article titled “The Speed of Thought” noted remarkable similarities between Ithkuil and an imaginary language cooked up by the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein for his novella “Gulf,” from 1949. Heinlein’s story describes a secret society of geniuses called the New Men who train themselves to think more rapidly and precisely using a language called Speedtalk, which is capable of condensing entire sentences into single words. Using their efficient language to communicate, the New Men plot to take over the world from the benighted “homo saps.”

Soon after the publication of the Russian article, Quijada began to receive a steady stream of letters from e-mail addresses ending in .ru, peppering him with arcane questions and requesting changes to the language to make its words easier to pronounce. Alexey Samons, a Russian software engineer based in Vladivostok, took on the monumental task of translating the Ithkuil Web site into Russian, and before long three Russian Web forums had sprung up to debate the merits and uses of Ithkuil.

At first, Quijada was bewildered by the interest emanating from Russia. “I was a third humbled, a third flattered, and a third intrigued,” he told me. “Beyond that, I just wanted to know: who are these people?”

In early 2010, he was forwarded an e-mail in patchy English from a Ukrainian academic named Oleg Bakhtiyarov, who introduced himself as the director of a recently formed institution of higher education in Kiev called the University of Effective Development, and as a leading proponent of a philosophical movement called psychonetics. When Quijada Googled both Bakhtiyarov and psychonetics, he found “a sea of impenetrable jargon” about “efforts to develop the human mind using a mix of Western and Eastern ideas,” but nothing that made him suspicious of the group’s motivations. The e-mail invited Quijada to participate in a conference titled “Creative Technology: Perspectives and Means of Development,” which was to be held that July in Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, a small semi-autonomous state in the Russian Federation, situated on the arid western shore of the Caspian Sea.

“From our viewpoint, creation of the Ithkuil language is one of the basic aspects for development of creative thinking,” Bakhtiyarov wrote to Quijada. “One can hardly learn enough about the Ithkuil language from the Russian scientific print editions.”

Ithkuil did not emerge from nowhere. Since at least the Middle Ages, philosophers and philologists have dreamed of curing natural languages of their flaws by constructing entirely new idioms according to orderly, logical principles. Inventing new forms of speech is an almost cosmic urge that stems from what the linguist Marina Yaguello, the author of “Lunatic Lovers of Language,” calls “an ambivalent love-hate relationship.” Language creation is pursued by people who are so in love with what language can do that they hate what it doesn’t. “I don’t believe any other fantasy has ever been pursued with so much ardor by the human spirit, apart perhaps from the philosopher’s stone or the proof of the existence of God; or that any other utopia has caused so much ink to flow, apart perhaps from socialism,” she writes.

The first entirely artificial language of which any record survives, Lingua Ignota, was created by the twelfth-century German nun and mystic Hildegard von Bingen, who is better known for having composed what may be the earliest surviving morality play. She seems to have used Lingua Ignota for some form of mystical communion. All that remains of her language is a short passage and a dictionary of a thousand and twelve words listed in hierarchical order, from the most important (Aigonz, God) to the least (Cauiz, cricket).

More than nine hundred languages have been invented since Lingua Ignota, and almost all have foundered. “The history of invented languages is, for the most part, a history of failure,” Arika Okrent, the author of “In the Land of Invented Languages,” writes. Many of the most spectacular flops have been languages, like Ithkuil, that attempt to hold a perfect mirror up to reality. In the seventeenth century, European philosophers like Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Gottfried Leibniz were fascinated by the ways in which natural languages clouded human thought, and wondered if an artificial substitute could more accurately capture the true essence of things. In the previous century, Jesuit missionaries had brought back the first substantial accounts of the Chinese language, and many philosophers were taken with the notion that its characters signified concepts rather than sounds, and that a single ideogram could have the same meaning to people all over East Asia, despite sounding completely different in each tongue. What if, they wondered, you could create a universal written language that could be understood by anyone, a set of “real characters,” just as the creation of Arabic numerals had done for counting? “This writing will be a kind of general algebra and calculus of reason, so that, instead of disputing, we can say that ‘we calculate,’ ” Leibniz wrote, in 1679.

Ithkuil’s conceptual pedigree can be traced back to Leibniz, Bacon, and Descartes, and especially to a seventeenth-century bishop and polymath, John Wilkins, who tried to actualize their lofty ideals. In his “Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language,” from 1668, Wilkins laid out a sprawling taxonomic tree that was intended to represent a rational classification of every concept, thing, and action in the universe. Each branch along the tree corresponded to a letter or a syllable, so that assembling a word was simply a matter of tracing a set of forking limbs until you’d arrived on a distant tendril representing the concept you wanted to express. For example, in Wilkins’s system, De signifies an element, Deb is fire, and Debα is a flame.

The natural philosopher Robert Hooke was so impressed by Wilkins’s language that he published a discourse on pocket watches in it, and proposed that it be made the lingua franca of scientific research. That never happened. The language was simply too burdensome, and it soon vanished into obscurity. But Wilkins’s taxonomic-classification scheme, which organized words by meaning rather than alphabetically, was not entirely without use: it was a predecessor of the first modern thesaurus.

By the nineteenth century, the dream of constructing a philosophical language capable of expressing universal truths had given way to the equally ambitious desire to unite the world through a single, easy-to-learn, politically neutral, auxiliary language. Solresol, the creation of a French musician named Jean-François Sudre, was among the first of these universal languages to gain popular attention. It had only seven syllables: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Si. Words could be sung, or performed on a violin. Or, since the language could also be translated into the seven colors of the rainbow, sentences could be woven into a textile as a stream of colors.

Esperanto, which was invented in the eighteen-eighties by L. L. Zamenhof, a Jewish doctor from Białystok, was by far the most successful of a hundred or so universal languages invented in the nineteenth century. At its peak, it had as many as two million speakers, and produced its own rich literature, including more than fifteen thousand books.

Two world wars and the ascent of global English punched an irreparable hole in the Esperantists’ dream of creating a universal language. Like every other attempt to undo the tragedy of Babel, Esperanto was ultimately a failure. And yet, by some estimates, Esperanto still has more speakers than six thousand of the languages spoken around the world today, including approximately a thousand native speakers (among them George Soros) who learned it as their first language.

John Quijada was born in Los Angeles to first-generation Mexican-Americans and grew up in the white-flight suburb of Whittier, where he attended Richard Nixon’s junior high school. His father, a Yaqui Indian, was a printer who made the sale signs that hung in grocery-store windows. At night, he painted landscapes.

Quijada’s entry into artificial languages was inspired by the utopian politics of Esperanto as well as by the import bin at his local record store, where as a teen-ager, in the nineteen-seventies, he discovered a concept album by the French prog-rock band Magma. All the songs were sung in Kobaïan, a melodic alien language made up by the group’s eccentric lead singer, Christian Vander.

“For someone to actually get onstage and unapologetically sing these gargantuan, operatic, epic songs, it made me realize, shit . . . I’ve got to do this,” Quijada told me. At fifteen, he created Mbozo, the first of his many invented languages, “a relexified generic Romance/Germanic hybrid with African-like phonology.” Another one, Pskeoj, had a vocabulary that was pounded out randomly on a typewriter.

Quijada enrolled at California State University, Fullerton, when he was eighteen, planning to become a linguistic anthropologist. “I dreamed of becoming the guy who goes into the Amazon and learns a language that no outsider can speak,” he said. He spent hours in the library poring over descriptions of the world’s most exotic languages, and becoming a connoisseur of strange grammars.

“I had this realization that every individual language does at least one thing better than every other language,” he said. For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees. Among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a grammatically correct sentence can’t be formed without providing what linguists refer to as “evidentiality,” inflecting the verb to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay.

Inspired by all the unorthodox grammars he had been studying, Quijada began wondering, “What if there were one single language that combined the coolest features from all the world’s languages?” Back in his room in his parents’ house, he started scribbling notes on an entirely new grammar that would eventually incorporate not only Wakashan evidentiality and Guugu Yimithirr coördinates but also Niger-Kordofanian aspectual systems, the nominal cases of Basque, the fourth-person referent found in several nearly extinct Native American languages, and a dozen other wild ways of forming sentences.

“Originally, I was going to get a Ph.D., when I was bright-eyed and full of dreams, but reality set in. I was too poor to go to grad school,” he told me. “I’d never heard of Pell grants or any other kind of grant, nor did the idea of the government giving people money to go to grad school ever cross my mind as something consistent with reality.” At the age of twenty-one, Quijada walked in on his devoutly religious mother describing him as “a good Catholic boy” to his uncle and aunt. “She was totally misrepresenting me,” he recalls. “In fact, I was, at the time, agnostic.” (Two years later, he declared himself an atheist, and now considers himself a pantheist.) “At that point in my life, it was very important to me that people understand me, and I felt that my parents didn’t really understand me,” he said. After a subsequent fight, he stormed out the door, and didn’t speak to his parents for five years. Unable to afford school on his own, he took a job as a truck driver, and then one at the D.M.V., planning to return to academia once he’d saved enough money.

“For an eight-year period I consciously, through sheer will, did my best to become a different person: that slick, yuppie man-about-town that I always aspired to be in high school,” Quijada said. “But the victories were all hollow and short-lived. Pretty soon I’m introspective enough to realize this formula is shallow. At thirty, I renounced that other me and I went back to being me.”

Quijada worked his way up to middle management at the D.M.V. in Sacramento, eventually overseeing its Web site. “There were always these incentives to keep grad school on the back burner, and then one day I realized it wasn’t even on the stove anymore,” he said. Instead, Quijada indulged his interest in academic linguistics by making an annual pilgrimage to Cody’s, a legendary bookstore in Berkeley, to pick up the latest titles. In his spare time, he continued to work on Ithkuil, filling memo pads with notes on a more perfect idiom.

It was on one of those pilgrimages that he discovered “Metaphors We Live By,” a seminal book, published in 1980, by the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which argues that the way we think is structured by conceptual systems that are largely metaphorical in nature. Life is a journey. Time is money. Argument is war. For better or worse, these figures of speech are profoundly embedded in how we think.

For Quijada, this was a revelation. He imagined that Ithkuil might be able to do what Lakoff and Johnson said natural languages could not: force its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say. No hemming, no hawing, no hiding true meaning behind jargon and metaphor. By requiring speakers to carefully consider the meaning of their words, he hoped that his analytical language would force many of the subterranean quirks of human cognition to the surface, and free people from the bugs that infect their thinking.

“As time went on, my goal began changing,” he told me. “It was no longer about creating a mishmash of cool linguistic features. I started getting all these ideas to make language work more efficiently. I thought, Why don’t I just create a means of finishing what all natural languages were unable to finish?”

Quijada wrote Lakoff an e-mail, introducing himself as “a great admirer, reader, and fan,” and “humbly inform[ing] you of a project . . . which you might, time permitting, find of interest.” He went on to describe how his understanding of Lakoff’s groundbreaking work in cognitive linguistics formed the conceptual basis of Ithkuil, and ended with a personal note of affection. “As someone with a lifelong passion for linguistics who, through personal/financial circumstances did not get to pursue my dream of [a] career in linguistics, I am grateful [to] you and your colleagues for fighting the battle for me, and I hope I live to see the full flowering of the cognitive revolution in science you have helped to start.” Lakoff never responded.

In 1997, when Quijada ran his first Web search for invented languages, he discovered that his strange passion was in fact shared by others. He found a newsgroup that was populated by amateur linguists from all over the world, who were excitedly conversing about new ways of conversing. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not alone!’ ” he recalled.

These linguistic hobbyists call themselves “conlangers” (referring to “constructed language”) and hold an occasional conclave called the Language Creation Conference. It was at the second of those conferences, in 2007, on the campus of U.C. Berkeley, that I first met Quijada. Amid two dozen men and seven women dressed in kilts, top hats, and kimonos, the quietly aloof Quijada stuck out like an umlaut in English. Broad-chested and bearded, he sat by himself in the back row of the auditorium, wearing a camouflage trucker hat, a brown polo shirt, and cargo pants. “John commands respect,” I was told by David Peterson, the president of the Language Creation Society and the inventor of Dothraki, the language spoken by a race of pseudo-Mongol nomadic warriors in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” (Dothraki is now heard by more people each week than Yiddish, Navajo, Inuit, Basque, and Welsh combined.) In 2008, Peterson awarded Ithkuil the Smiley Award for the best invented language of the year. “Few have or, I’m sure, ever will, produce anything as complete and compelling as Ithkuil,” he proclaimed in the award presentation.

Quijada appreciated the award, but he generally keeps a low profile in the conlanging world. On the Facebook page devoted to Ithkuil, where fans post translations of the Lord’s Prayer, and offer “Ithkuil Wisdom of the Day,” Quijada lurks but never comments.

When I met him, Quijada was preparing to deliver a talk on the topic of phonoaesthetics, that hard-to-pin-down quality which gives a language its personality and makes even the most argumentative Italian sound operatic, the most romantic German sound angry, and Yankee English sound like a honking horn. He asked rhetorical questions of the audience, such as “Should my language include diphthongs?” while offering advice like “If you put front vowels in your language, nobody will take it seriously as a language of Orcs.” His speaking style was confident and professorial in a way that might have seemed arrogant were it not for his frequent self-deprecation.

At the previous year’s conference, where Quijada had lectured on Lakoff’s theory of metaphor, he had begun his presentation by speaking sentences in six languages created by conference attendees. For most of them, it was the first time they had heard their language spoken by another human being.

Unlike earlier philosophers and idealists, who believed that their languages could perfect humanity, modern conlangers tend to create their languages primarily as a hobby and a form of self-expression. Jim Henry, a retired software developer from Stockbridge, Georgia, keeps a diary and prays in his constructed language, gjâ-zym-byn. If there is a god paying attention, he is the language’s only other speaker.

Many conlanging projects begin with a simple premise that violates the inherited conventions of linguistics in some new way. Aeo uses only vowels. Kēlen has no verbs. Toki Pona, a language inspired by Taoist ideals, was designed to test how simple a language could be. It has just a hundred and twenty-three words and fourteen basic sound units. Brithenig is an answer to the question of what English might have sounded like as a Romance language, if vulgar Latin had taken root on the British Isles. Láadan, a feminist language developed in the early nineteen-eighties, includes words like radíidin, defined as a “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.”

Invented languages have often been created in tandem with entire invented universes, and most conlangers come to their craft by way of fantasy and science fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, who called conlanging his “secret vice,” maintained that he created the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy for the primary purpose of giving his invented languages, Quenya, Sindarin, and Khuzdul, a universe in which they could be spoken. And arguably the most commercially successful invented language of all time is Klingon, which has its own translation of “Hamlet” and a dictionary that has sold more than three hundred thousand copies.

The discipline of linguistics has a history of giving uncredentialled amateurs a seat at the table. Indeed, one of the foundational linguistic theories of the twentieth century, which came to be called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, was based in part on the work of Benjamin Whorf, an inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance company. Whorf never got an advanced degree, but he took graduate classes in his free time with the anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir, in the nineteen-thirties, and he devoted his leisure hours to the study of Native American languages.

Neither Sapir nor Whorf formulated a definitive version of the hypothesis that bears their names, but in general the theory argues that the language we speak actually shapes our experience of reality. Speakers of different languages think differently. Stronger versions of the hypothesis go even further than this, to suggest that language constrains the set of possible thoughts that we can have. In 1955, a sociologist and science-fiction writer named James Cooke Brown decided he would test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by creating a “culturally neutral” “model language” that might recondition its speakers’ brains.

Brown based the grammar for his ten-thousand-word language, called Loglan, on the rules of formal predicate logic used by analytical philosophers. He hoped that, by training research subjects to speak Loglan, he might turn them into more logical thinkers. If we could change how we think by changing how we speak, then the radical possibility existed of creating a new human condition.

Brown never succeeded in creating more logical thinkers, and today the stronger versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have “sunk into . . . disrepute among respectable linguists,” as Guy Deutscher writes, in “Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.” But, as Deutscher points out, there is evidence to support the less radical assertion that the particular language we speak influences how we perceive the world. For example, speakers of gendered languages, like Spanish, in which all nouns are either masculine or feminine, actually seem to think about objects differently depending on whether the language treats them as masculine or feminine; those conceptual differences are maintained even when they learn a second, non-gendered language, like English.

Quijada would endorse a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and the conlanging community includes some of the last true believers in a strong version. After all, if our thoughts are necessarily imprisoned by language, as Sapir-Whorf suggests, then the only sensible course of action is to build a roomier, more lavish jail cell with all the amenities an inmate could possibly desire—a new language that could make possible new ways of thinking.

If you imagine all the possible notions, ideas, beliefs, and statements that a human mind could ever express, Ithkuil provides a precise set of coördinates for pinpointing any of those thoughts. The final version of Ithkuil, which Quijada published in 2011, has twenty-two grammatical categories for verbs, compared with the six—tense, aspect, person, number, mood, and voice—that exist in English. Eighteen hundred distinct suffixes further refine a speaker’s intent. Through a process of laborious conjugation that would befuddle even the most competent Latin grammarian, Ithkuil requires a speaker to home in on the exact idea he means to express, and attempts to remove any possibility for vagueness.

In the original version of Ithkuil, the word Ithkuil literally means “hypothetical representation of a language,” which reflects the fact that it was never meant to be casually spoken. It was an attempt to demonstrate what language could be, not what it should be. “The idea of Ithkuil is to convey deeper levels of human cognition than are usually conveyed in human language,” Quijada told me. For example, the phrase “characteristic of a single component among the synergistic amalgamation of things” is a single adjective: oicaštik’.

If that word looks as though it required extreme acts of tonsillar gymnastics to produce, it is because no sound or syllable is wasted in Ithkuil. Every language has its own phonemic inventory, or library of sounds, from which a speaker can string together words. Consonant-poor Hawaiian has just thirteen phonemes. English has around forty-two, depending on dialect. In order to pack as much meaning as possible into each word, Ithkuil has fifty-eight phonemes. The original version of the language included a repertoire of grunts, wheezes, and hacks that are borrowed from some of the world’s most obscure tongues. One particular hard-to-make clicklike sound, a voiceless uvular ejective affricate, has been found in only a few other languages, including the Caucasian language Ubykh, whose last native speaker died in 1992.

On a warm afternoon in mid-July, I visited Quijada’s modest three-bedroom home in suburban Sacramento, where he lives with his wife, Carol Barry, also a retired civil servant. One set of bookshelves was lined with dictionaries of Yoruba, Latvian, Basque, Hausa, and more than three dozen other languages. Another was packed two layers deep with science-fiction paperbacks.

Quijada turned on some Congolese soukous music, one of many genres of world music of which he considers himself an aficionado, and pulled out a copy of an unpublished science-fiction novel he co-wrote with his identical twin, Paul, called “Beyond Antimony,” about the philosophical implications of quantum theory. (Quijada and his twin communicated with each other in a private language when they were young, a phenomenon that is surprisingly common, and has its own name: cryptophasia.) In the novel, Ithkuil is used as a “para-linguistic interface for an array of quantum computers that are being used to create emergent consciousness.”

He opened a closet and pulled out a plastic tub filled with reams of graph paper documenting early versions of the Ithkuil script and twenty-year-old sentence conjugations handwritten in marker on a mishmash of folded notepads. “I worked on this in fits and starts,” he said, looking at the mass of documents. “It was very much dependent on whether I was dating anyone at the time. This isn’t exactly something you discuss on a first or second date.”

Human interactions are governed by a set of implicit codes that can sometimes seem frustratingly opaque, and whose misreading can quickly put you on the outside looking in. Irony, metaphor, ambiguity: these are the ingenious instruments that allow us to mean more than we say. But in Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç. Hyperbolic statements are inflected by the letter ’m.

“I wanted to use Ithkuil to show how you would discuss philosophy and emotional states transparently,” Quijada said. To attempt to translate a thought into Ithkuil requires investigating a spectrum of subtle variations in meaning that are not recorded in any natural language. You cannot express a thought without first considering all the neighboring thoughts that it is not. Though words in Ithkuil may sound like a hacking cough, they have an inherent and unavoidable depth. “It’s the ideal language for political and philosophical debate—any forum where people hide their intent or obfuscate behind language,” Quijada continued. “Ithkuil makes you say what you mean and mean what you say.”

In Ithkuil, the difference between glimpsing, glancing, and gawking is the mere flick of a vowel. Each of these distinctions is expressed simply as a conjugation of the root word for vision. Hunched over the dining-room table, Quijada showed me how he would translate “gawk” into Ithkuil. First, though, since words in Ithkuil are assembled from individual atoms of meaning, he had to engage in some introspection about what exactly he meant to say.

For fifteen minutes, he flipped backward and forward through his thick spiral-bound manuscript, scratching his head, pondering each of the word’s aspects, as he packed the verb with all of gawking’s many connotations. As he assembled the evolving word from its constituent meanings, he scribbled its pieces on a notepad. He added the “second degree of the affix for expectation of outcome” to suggest an element of surprise that is more than mere unpreparedness but less than outright shock, and the “third degree of the affix for contextual appropriateness” to suggest an element of impropriety that is less than scandalous but more than simply eyebrow-raising. As he rapped his pen against the notepad, he paged through his manuscript in search of the third pattern of the first stem of the root for “shock” to suggest a “non-volitional physiological response,” and then, after several moments of contemplation, he decided that gawking required the use of the “resultative format” to suggest “an event which occurs in conjunction with the conflated sense but is also caused by it.” He eventually emerged with a tiny word that hardly rolled off the tongue: apq’uxasiu. He spoke the first clacking syllable aloud a couple of times before deciding that he had the pronunciation right, and then wrote it down in the script he had invented for printed Ithkuil:  “Now imagine a culture where gawking is not only culturally appropriate but laudatory. Ithkuil would have a word for that, too,” Quijada explained. Having grammatically systematized all the many aspects that turn seeing into gawking, he showed me how he could apply those same grammatical transformations to any verb, so that one could open a door or run to the store or throw a ball with all of the same nuanced inflections of impropriety, surprise, and shock that transform a mere look into a gawk.

“You can make up words by the millions to describe concepts that have never existed in any language before,” he said.

I asked him if he could come up with an entirely new concept on the spot, one for which there was no word in any existing language. He thought about it for a moment.

“Well, no language, as far as I know, has a single word for that chin-stroking moment you get, often accompanied by a frown on your face, when someone expresses an idea that you’ve never thought of and you have a moment of suddenly seeing possibilities you never saw before.” He paused, as if leafing through a mental dictionary. “In Ithkuil, it’s ašţal.”

In 2010, Quijada found himself in a position he’d long sought to avoid. In order to get time off to attend the conference in Kalmykia, he was forced to disclose to his boss and co-workers, some of whom had known him for more than two decades, that he had been concealing a hobby that had consumed his nights, weekends, and lunch breaks ever since college.

“People at work now held me in some sort of state of half awe, because this guy obviously has more going on in his head than being a manager at this dopey state agency, and half in contempt, because I’ve now proved myself to be beyond whatever state of geekery they might have previously thought about me,” Quijada said. “ ‘You’re a what? A con man?’ ‘No, boss, a conlanger.’ ” He was being sent halfway around the world on an all-expenses-paid trip, sponsored by a foreign government, to take part in a conference whose docket of speakers included philosophers, sociologists, economists, biologists, a logician, and a Buddhist monk. Not only had Quijada never been to Kalmykia; he’d never heard of it before.

To the extent that it’s known at all, Kalmykia is notable for two things: for being the only majority-Buddhist state west of the Ural Mountains, and for having an eccentric former President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, an oligarch-turned-politician, spend millions of dollars of his own fortune turning a dusty, forgotten corner of the Russian steppe into the chess capital of the world. Ilyumzhinov claims to have been abducted from his Moscow apartment, in 1997, by extraterrestrials, who gave him a tour of the galaxy and taught him that chess came from outer space.

Upon landing in Elista, Quijada was greeted by an interpreter and whisked off to Chess City, a community of middle-class California-style town houses built on the outskirts of town to host the 1998 World Chess Championships. There he met a student, a young woman, who informed him that a group of students at the University of Effective Development, in Kiev, had been studying Ithkuil intensively for the past two years, and saw it as an integral part of a psychonetics training program that they were developing. Another student told him that he and his friends regarded him as “a legend.” Quijada still had no real idea what psychonetics was, or why the University of Effective Development might be interested in it. He was speechless.

“You tend to think by age fifty-one that you’ve pretty much seen everything life can throw at you,” he wrote later. “But from that moment on, John Q. was through the looking glass.”

Quijada opened his presentation the next morning by showing an image of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” a seminal work of Cubist painting, which captures a figure in motion with abstract lines and planes. It’s not an easy work to describe in any language, but Quijada wanted to demonstrate how one would attempt the task in Ithkuil.

He began with several of the language’s root words: -QV- for person, -GV- for clothing, -TN- for an implement that counters gravity, and -GW- for ambulation, and showed how to transform those roots through each of the language’s twenty-two grammatical categories to arrive at the six-word sentence “Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu,” which translates roughly to “An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.”

That evening, following a series of interviews with the Kalmykian press, there was a get-together of conferees in the town house in Chess City where Oleg Bakhtiyarov, the professor responsible for Quijada’s invitation to Kalmykia, was staying. The psychoneticists talked into the night about their experiments in “deconcentration of attention” and other techniques of spiritual self-development. But the more Quijada pressed them for an explanation of their philosophy the more elusive it seemed. Above all, he couldn’t quite figure out why they were so obsessed with his language.

“I never did get a handle on what these techniques really were,” Quijada recalled. He chalked up his misunderstandings to poor translation, and decided that it would be impolite to voice too much skepticism. As the evening unfolded, he found himself perched barefoot and cross-legged on a sofa, with a group of young Russian students gathered on the rug at his feet.

“I was surrounded by all these people hanging on my every word. It was intoxicating—especially for a loner like me,” Quijada said. “For one day, I got to play as an academic. I got to live this fantasy where I took the other path in the garden. I got to see what it would have been like if I had gone to graduate school and become a professional linguist. The fates of the universe tore open a window to show me what my life could have been. That night, I went back to my room, took a shower, and burst into tears.”

In May, 2011, I accompanied Quijada on a return trip to the former Soviet Union, this time to attend “SingEngineering: Ithkuil & Psychonetica,” a two-day conference in Kiev that had been organized by the University of Effective Development. The befuddling title of the conference seemed to be a mistranslation of the Russian znakotehnologiya, which makes only marginally better sense when rendered as “Sign Engineering.”

We were picked up at the airport by Alla Vishneva, an attractive brunette with streaks of bleached blond in her hair, with whom Quijada had been exchanging e-mails and phone calls intermittently for the past several months. Vishneva, a former professor of Ukrainian at Rivne State Humanitarian University and a student of psychonetics, was the founder of an Ithkuil study group in Kiev.

Quijada, who had been wearing a pair of Coke-bottle glasses and toting a cane to compensate for a leg injury, sized up her metallic silver boots and figure-hugging bluejeans and seemed taken aback. “What is a beautiful woman like you doing teaching Ithkuil?” he asked.

Vishneva chuckled and returned the compliment in stilted English: “Ithkuil is beautiful. It’s a very pure and logically constructed language.”

Quijada turned to me in the back seat of the car, visibly giddy. “It’s one thing for another conlanger to call your work beautiful, but for someone halfway around the world with a million better things to do to say that—you’ve got to pinch yourself. It makes it seem like thirty years of slaving away might have been worth it.”

“We think that when a person learns Ithkuil his brain works faster,” Vishneva told him, in Russian. She spoke through a translator, as neither she nor Quijada was yet fluent in their shared language. “With Ithkuil, you always have to be reflecting on yourself. Using Ithkuil, we can see things that exist but don’t have names, in the same way that Mendeleyev’s periodic table showed gaps where we knew elements should be that had yet to be discovered.”

“She really understands my language!” Quijada exclaimed. He leaned across the headrest and told Vishneva, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, “I don’t know if you’re a saint or crazy.”

The conference was held in a Soviet-era high-school classroom, the walls of which were covered in chalkboards and forest-green Naugahyde. Most of the attendees were either students or faculty of the University of Effective Development, but none of them, Quijada noted, looked like the typical language geeks he knew from the conlanging community. For one thing, they were more physically imposing; many of the men had shaved heads.

Bakhtiyarov, who had just flown in from a conference in Egypt, delivered the opening remarks. Wiry, with short gray hair and a dark mustache, he carried himself with a studied calmness that came across at times as diffidence. He explained to me later that he had begun his career as a medical student at the Kiev Medical Institute, but was expelled for distributing “provocative literature” on campus. In the late sixties, the K.G.B. labelled him “politically unreliable,” and sent him to prison for two years. When he got out, he switched to biology, and eventually became a psychologist. In the nineteen-eighties, despite his history of radicalism, he ended up working for the Soviet government on a project to develop a set of stress-management techniques for cosmonauts, soldiers, and other individuals in states of psychological extremis. Those techniques form the basis of psychonetics, a quasi-mystical, quasi-philosophical self-help movement whose goal is to develop “technologies of human consciousness.”

After I asked several times for a demonstration of these technologies, Bakhtiyarov pulled up a piece of software on his laptop. Half a dozen colored circles were slowly bouncing around the screen like billiard balls, shooting off in new directions as they collided with each other. Bakhtiyarov instructed us to try to look at the screen as a unified gestalt, instead of focussing on any individual ball. “Your attention creates subjects and objects as it filters a stream of data,” he said. “With deconcentration, we have no objects, just a feeling of everything in a single integrated whole.” After a few moments, the balls all went black, and we were supposed to keep track of their original colors as they continued to bounce around the screen. It was, of course, impossible. But, according to Bakhtiyarov, it is through exercises like this that a psychoneticist can begin to access deeper layers of intuition about the world.

Psychoneticists may be the world’s strongest believers in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. For them, language is a barrier that gets in the way of a holistic perception of the universe. “A psychoneticist must have nothing unconscious. Everything must be conscious,” Bakhtiyarov explained. “This is the same goal as Ithkuil. Human beings have a linguistic essence, but we are in a transitional stage to some other essence. We can defeat and conquer language.” He sees Ithkuil as a tool to bring all of one’s unconscious thoughts and feelings under conscious control.

In addition to the University of Effective Development in Kiev, there are psychonetics laboratories in Kharkov, Odessa, Zaprozia, Minsk, Elista, St. Petersburg, Alma-Ata, Krasnoyarsk, and Moscow, where practitioners try to find ways to access “deep layers of consciousness” to become “more effective in business, increase willpower, creative skills, problem solving, and leadership.” At the conference, Bakhtiyarov announced that, beginning the following semester, Ithkuil would be made a mandatory part of the school’s curriculum in Kiev and at satellite campuses in three other cities.

One of the conferees, a graduate of the University of Effective Development named Gennadiy Overchenko, explained that he had used psychonetics to develop skills in a variety of disciplines where he previously had no expertise, from chess to cooking to gouache painting. He later told me that, after half an hour of meditation, he was able to sight-read Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” despite being a novice pianist. “In the past two years, I have never fallen (including on ice), and have not dropped or broken anything,” he continued.

Another conferee, Marina Balioura, described how, while under the influence of psychonetic techniques, she could simultaneously write two different sentences with each of her hands. A young lawyer named Ilya Petichenko recounted an exercise that uses Ithkuil to “go into the field of pure meanings.” His wife, Victorya, explained how psychonetics helped her “just bounce off the floor with creativity.”

I glanced over at Quijada, who seemed to be amazed at how well the presenters grasped the fundamentals of his language, and yet increasingly flustered by their weirdness. The group had gathered to discuss linguistic transparency, and yet the more the psychoneticists described their interest in Quijada’s language the more opaque it all seemed.

A gaunt man with closely cropped hair sat on one side of the room and recorded the proceedings on a camcorder. He slouched in his chair, showing only intermittent interest in the proceedings, until he came to the front of the room to address the conference. He introduced himself as Igor Garkavenko. Rather than hand his camcorder off to someone in the audience, he continued to hold on to it while he spoke, pointing it at me and our translator.

As he spoke, the translator whispered in my ear; Garkavenko spoke so fast and monotonously that it was difficult to keep up. He mentioned a recent stint in prison, described reading Bakhtiyarov’s book, “Active Consciousness,” in his jail cell every day, and the transformational effect that psychonetics had had on his political and philosophical consciousness.

Near the end of his speech, the translator stopped speaking. The color had fled his cheeks. “Do you realize who this guy is?” he whispered to me. “This guy is, like, the No. 2 terrorist in Ukraine.”

A quick Google from our seats pulled up a news report with a photograph of the man who was standing at the podium. Garkavenko, it turned out, was the founder of a militant far-right Russian nationalist organization called the Ukrainian People’s Revolutionary Army. In 1997, he was sent to prison for nine years for firebombing the offices of several Ukrainian political and cultural organizations, as well as the Israeli cultural center in Kharkov.

I turned to my translator. “What in the world is this guy doing at a linguistics conference?”

I leaned over to Quijada and told him what I had just read. We looked around the room at the collection of young men and women in attendance, and were suddenly struck by a question that probably ought to have dawned on us earlier: What were any of these people doing here?

After the conference wrapped up, Quijada and I met over a cup of coffee to debrief, and to try to figure out what we had just taken part in. We ran Internet searches on Bakhtiyarov and Garkavenko, and, with the help of Google Translate, we decoded some of their writings in Russian, including a trail of Garkavenko’s anti-Semitic blog posts. “A considerable proportion of the populace knows the role of the State of Israel, and the élites related to it, in those disastrous processes that the peoples of the former Soviet Union are now living in,” one of his essays proclaimed. I read that one aloud to Quijada, who twiddled anxiously with the strap of his luggage, a look of devastation on his face.

We discovered that Bakhtiyarov, in addition to his work on psychonetics, moonlights in politics. In 1994, he joined the leadership of the Party of Slavonic Unity, a short-lived ultra-nationalist movement whose goal was the reunification of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus into a Slavic confederation that would also include Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks, and Bulgarians.

In interviews, Bakhtiyarov talks of developing “intellectual special forces” that can bring about the “reëstablishment of a great power” in greater Russia, and give birth to a “new race . . . that can really be called superhuman.”

An intellectual élite capable of seeing through the tissue of lies to the underlying essence of things needs a language capable of expressing their new way of thinking. Like Heinlein’s fictional secret society of geniuses, who train themselves in Speedtalk in order to think faster and more clearly, Bakhtiyarov and the psychoneticists believe that an Ithkuil training regimen has the potential to reshape human consciousness and help them “solve problems faster.” Though he denies that psychonetics is a political project, it’s hard to uncouple Bakhtiyarov’s dream of creating a Slavic superstate from his dream of creating a Slavic superman—perhaps one who speaks a disciplined, transparent language such as Ithkuil.

“When I get home, the first thing I’m doing is draft a letter to Dr. Bakhtiyarov saying I don’t want to have anything else to do with psychonetics,” a dispirited Quijada told me. “What if, God forbid, this were labelled as pseudoscience, or some sort of cult? I wouldn’t want to be complicit in that. To find out that, when all is said and done, I’m ultimately a pawn for these misguided Nietzschean whatever-they-are . . . it just turns me off.”

Quijada and I weren’t the only ones who had been using Google. Garkavenko blogged his account of the conference on Live Journal and posted the video he shot of me on YouTube.

“At the conference, there was one person . . . with an interpreter,” he wrote on his blog. “To put it simply: he had Pentagon written all over him. I don’t know, it was plain and simple, a stereotypical caricature of the face of a government agent. . . . When he took the initiative and asked a question, it was always exactly the thing that a government agent would bluntly ask about.”

Garkavenko had also noticed the moment when my translator and I realized who he was. “He changed right before our eyes. . . . It became clear that he had met me on the Internet. Afterward, I found out whom fate had brought. Joshua Foer . . . the well-known journalist . . . a descendant of Odessa Jews who had once fled to the West, at an inopportune time for them. Of course, they were confident in their intuitions. And how could they over there ignore a phenomenon like Oleg Bakhtiyarov’s project?”

Releasing a newborn language into the wild, where it can evolve and be corrupted in the mouths of others, has consistently proved difficult for language creators. More than once, it has been accompanied by the same sense of destructive disappointment that the Biblical God experienced after he released his own perfect creations into the world and discovered that they weren’t so perfect after all. Charles Bliss, a survivor of Buchenwald and the inventor of the pictographic language Blissymbolics, became unhinged when he learned that teachers were modifying his language to make it a tool for children with cerebral palsy to learn English. Volapük, a language created in the nineteenth century by a German Catholic priest named Johann Martin Schleyer, once had two hundred and eighty clubs around the world and more speakers than Esperanto. But its audience collapsed when Schleyer refused to allow anyone other than himself to coin new words.

Toward the end of the Kiev conference, one of the professors from the University of Effective Development told Quijada that she couldn’t understand why he had no interest in building a movement of Ithkuil speakers and students. “Your language is taking on a life of its own,” she told him. “You should become a part of it.”

“It’s not my passion,” Quijada told her politely. “It was a twenty-five-year itch that I needed to scratch. I scratched it. If others can pick it up and run with it, that’s wonderful, but I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. You’ve shown me that you understand my work far better than I would have thought other persons could understand it. Indeed, perhaps you understand its potential better than I do.”

A few months after returning from Kiev, Quijada finally had the opportunity to meet George Lakoff, at his home in Berkeley. Lakoff was laid out on his sofa after a back operation that kept him from going in to work. At my urging, he had agreed to see Quijada.

As we walked up the front-yard path to the house, Quijada was as adrenalized as I’d ever seen him. “This is one more step in the adventure, I guess,” he said.

Lakoff’s wife opened the door and escorted us to the living room.

“Why me?” Lakoff asked Quijada, from his spot on the couch.

“Because you’re my hero,” he said.

Lakoff, who is seventy-one, bearded, and, like Quijada, broadly built, seemed to have read a fair portion of the Ithkuil manuscript and familiarized himself with the language’s nuances.

“There are a whole lot of questions I have about this,” he told Quijada, and then explained how he felt Quijada had misread his work on metaphor. “Metaphors don’t just show up in language,” he said. “The metaphor isn’t in the word, it’s in the idea,” and it can’t be wished away with grammar.

“For me, as a linguist looking at this, I have to say, ‘O.K., this isn’t going to be used.’ It has an assumption of efficiency that really isn’t efficient, given how the brain works. It misses the metaphor stuff. But the parts that are successful are really nontrivial. This may be an impossible language,” he said. “But if you think of it as a conceptual-art project I think it’s fascinating.”

In the months that I’d known him, Quijada had compared himself to a painter several times, and spoken often of the impulse to create, but this was the first time I’d heard him or anyone refer to Ithkuil simply as a work of art. And yet that description of his project seemed to sit better with Quijada than any other set of words that anyone else had used to describe it.

“If linguistics is the best window into the mind that we have, why wouldn’t you want to manipulate it for artistic purposes?” he said to Lakoff.

“The beauty of this for me is that you went through the world’s languages and collected all these features, as if to say, Look at what human language is capable of. I say, bless you!” Lakoff told him. The meeting lasted almost five hours.

When Quijada returned home, he made a final set of tweaks to the Ithkuil grammar, and declared his thirty-four-year project complete. Then he self-published a definitive, four-hundred-and-thirty-nine-page description of the language. Though he dedicated the book to Alla Vishneva, he politely declined Bakhtiyarov’s invitation to speak at another conference, in Moscow.

Once the deflation of Kiev and the excitement of the meeting with Lakoff had worn off, I wrote to Quijada and asked if there might be a brief phrase in Ithkuil to summarize the journey that he and his language have taken during the past year. He sent me a sentence: “Eipkalindhöll te uvölîlpa ípçatörza üxt rî’ekçuöbös abzeikhouxhtoù eqarpaň dhai’eickòbüm öt eužmackûnáň xhai’ékc’oxtîmmalt te qhoec îtyatuithaň.” “I am privileged to have had the rare experience of having what I think of as a hobby propel me to faraway places where one encounters new ideas along with new cultures and new peoples generous in their hospitality and respect, leading me to humble introspection and a new appreciation for the human spirit and the wonders of the world.”

Of course, that’s not quite right, either. 

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2012 in The New Yorker

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

This is Water

David Foster Wallace

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

If at this moment you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude-but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete...

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real-you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues." This is not a matter of virtue-it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home-you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job-and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out. You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV- intensive rush-hour traffic, et cetera, et cetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to foodshop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-theday traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth...

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do-except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am-it is actually I who am in his way. And so on.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line-maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible-it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important-if you want to operate on your default-setting-then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars-compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already-it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race"-the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness-awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

Friday, February 16, 2018

In praise of dirty, sexy cities: the urban world according to Walter Benjamin

Stuart Jeffries

Claude Monet

Marseille isn’t as wicked as it used to be. In 1929, the playwright and travel writer Basil Woon wrote From Deauville to Monte Carlo: a Guide to the Gay World of France, warning his respectable readers that, whatever they do, they should on no account visit France’s second city. “Thieves, cut-throats and other undesirables throng the narrow alleys and sisters of scarlet sit in the doorways of their places of business, catching you by the sleeve as you pass by. The dregs of the world are here unsifted … Marseille is the world’s wickedest port.”

Much has changed since 1929. Gay doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Marseille isn’t the world’s wickedest port, but subject to one of Europe’s biggest architectural makeover projects. It has become respectable enough to serve as European Capital of Culture in 2013. Its port has been sandblasted and civilised. Throughout the city – Eurostar’s latest destination from London – there are new trams, designer hotels, luxury flats and high-rise developments.

The last of these changes is freighted with symbolism. Marseille has been overwhelmingly horizontal since Greek graders founded it 2,600 years ago, its terracotta-roofed buildings spreading inland from the bay. Now it’s going vertical, with new skyscrapers glassily returning your gaze, looking like a Mediterranean sibling for those other formerly raffish docklands made safe for business suits – London, Hamburg and Baltimore.

The worry is, as Marseille comes to look like everywhere else, it loses what made it special – the saltiness, the wickedness, the downright smelliness so off-putting to some.

“Marseille – the yellow studded maw of a seal with salt water coming out between the teeth,” wrote the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. “When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies according to their timetables, it exhales a stink of oil, urine and printer’s ink …”

Benjamin wrote these words for a newspaper article in the same same year as A Guide to the Gay World of France excoriated Marseille. Unlike Basil Woon, he revelled in the city. Another French city, Toulouse, called itself la ville rose, the pink city, but for Benjamin, pink was more truly the colour of Marseille. “The palate itself is pink, which is the colour of shame here, of poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen. And the discoloured women of Rue Bouterie are given their only tint by the sole pieces of clothing they wear: pink shifts.”

What Benjamin wrote about cities in newspaper essays in the 1920s and early 1930s, as well as in his book about 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project, remains fascinating and instructive, and not just because he was one of the first thinkers to suggest that urban living intensified feelings of isolation and atomisation.

What makes this German Jewish philosopher even more compelling is that he also found the opposite in cities – flashes of the utopian in the abject – and realised they could provide solutions to, as well be the causes of, alienation. This oddball communist from segregated Berlin interpreted cities such as Marseille, Moscow and Naples as kinds of laboratories that, just possibly, suggested how we might live better.

In his essay Hashish in Marseille, Benjamin described an evening wandering from cafe to cafe after taking the drug (the philosopher stoned): “I now suddenly understood how to a painter – had it not happened to Rembrandt and many others? – ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty, better than any treasure cask, a jagged mountain with all the inner gold of beauty gleaming from the wrinkles, glances, features.” Benjamin encountered in his Marseille trance what his beloved Baudelaire had found when taking the same drug in Paris nearly 70 years before: an artificial paradise.

But the Marseille Benjamin savoured, and that scared Woon, scarcely exists any more. The red-light district of the Rue Bouterie survives only as collectable postcards from the wicked era of the later 1920s. So too Basso’s, one of the restaurants in which Benjamin dined that night, nearly nine decades ago, to stave off the munchies. As I wander the Marseille streets trying, and failing, to follow Benjamin’s footsteps, I’m disappointed: the people are insufficiently ugly. Perhaps if I’d been on hashish like Benjamin …

A different Marseille – sandblasted, primped and cultureified – is rising in its place. On the Quai d’Arenc, where once Benjamin found beauty in ugliness, an old silo building has been repurposed as a 2,000-seater auditorium. Elsewhere, an old chateau has been converted into the Centre for Mediterranean Cinematography, a Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations and, my personal favourite, a museum devoted to La Marseillaise, the French national anthem where, depending on your taste, you can hear Serge Gainsbourg croaking a reggae version of Stephane Grappelli.

But the worry here is that what Benjamin’s colleagues of the Frankfurt School – Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – excoriated as “the culture industry” becomes a means of ripping the soul out of the place while making it look as though the opposite is happening. Without being unduly cynical, culture has become part of capitalism’s sanitising redevelopment of one of the most cherishably wicked of world cities.

The Arcades Project – that great ruin of a book he spent the last decade of his life assembling, until his suicide in Spain 75 years ago this month while on the run from the Nazis – focuses on the fading arcades of 19th-century Paris, in which once-fashionable shops, goods and building styles hung on briefly before Baron Haussmann destroyed them in favour of a yet-newer Paris. Benjamin was always drawn to these outmoded utopias, the formerly state-of-the-art technology, the ruins of progress – since they encoded, he thought, the delusions that capitalism instilled in its victims.

“Capitalism,” Benjamin wrote in 1922, “is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.” By that, in part, he meant that capitalism abases us before the new, subdues us not with opium but with must-have commodities. And cities could be shrines to the cult, too.

To get a sense of this, simply take the tourist boat trip from the Vieux Port along the coast to see the legendary Chateau d’If (where the Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated) and the Calanques (the limestone cliffs that plunge into the Mediterranean). Look back and you’ll see a city skyline that did not exist when Benjamin and Woon wrote. Since 1864, the city was dominated by Notre Dame de la Garde, standing high on a hill on the site of a former fort. Now though, it rhymes with Zaha Hadid’s Tour French Line. The Iraqi-British architect says that her tower complements the basilica. It also, though, represents a challenge to it: hers is a glassy temple to a newer deity.

The focus of that redevelopment, Euroméditerranée, is among the biggest renovations schemes in Europe. It echoes what Marseille’s twin city of Hamburg is doing at HafenCity – the German port’s former docks – and similarly risks making the raffish respectable, the salty sweet, the wicked merely nice. That, so often, has been the fate of docklands redevelopments: think of London’s Docklands now devoid of opium dens and free-swearing dockers. It risks, that is to say, obliterating everything Benjamin liked about Marseille.

New Marseille is typified by Zaha Hadid’s 147m-tall Tour French Line, the corporate headquarters for shipping container company CMA-CGM. Jean Nouvel has designed three more skyscrapers for the city which, to sceptics, are excellent ways of making Marseille lose its identity.

According to the French film director Robert Guédiguian, who sets most of his films (including Marius et Jeannette and La Ville est Tranquille) in and around his home city: “All that squeezes itself between the buildings, that insinuates itself between the architectural drawings and political plans, must be carefully preserved because it is there that one finds the city’s future.”

For Guédiguian, what squeezes itself between these plans is a much more interesting city – a multi-ethnic metropolis that includes 120,000 north African immigrants whose presence has led to Marseille being called Sahara on Sea. “Marseille isn’t France. Marseille isn’t Provence. Marseille is the world,” says Guédiguian.

So what would Walter Benjamin have made of the new city that is rising over the traces of the one he loved? What’s striking about his vision of the former city is how sensitive he was to false utopianism, to the bulldozing of the past and the dreams of progress.

In promising newness, progress, built utopias, bulldozing wickedness and poverty, the development of urban landscapes could make the faithful believe more ardently in what – for a communist such as Benjamin – in fact, oppressed them. Again and again, he takes the perspective of one looking back on failed utopias, on the obsolete commodities that were once must-haves. The Benjamin scholar Max Pensky explains the political force of how Benjamin wrote about cities: “The fantasy world of material well-being promised by every commodity now is revealed as a hell of unfulfillment; the promise of eternal newness and unlimited progress … now appear as their opposite: as primal history, the mythic compulsion toward endless repetition.”

None of the above should suggest that Walter Benjamin disliked cities. Rather, he found in the ones he really liked – Marseille, Naples and Moscow in particular – antidotes to the socially zoned, ghettoised Berlin in which he had been raised around 1900.
For instance, in 1927, he took a sleigh ride through Moscow. “Where Europeans, on their rapid journeys, enjoy superiority, dominance over the masses,” he wrote, “the Muscovite in the little sleigh is closely mingled with people and things. If he has a box, a child, or a basket to take with him – for all this, the sleigh is the cheapest means of transport – he is truly wedged into the street bustle. No condescending gaze: a tender, swift brushing along stones, people and horses. You feel like a child gliding through the house on a little chair.”
Ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Benjamin was visiting the Soviet capital to study what he called “ the world-historical experiment”. “Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table,” he wrote. Riding on a Moscow tram was, for the pampered Berliner, a new experience – the poor got up close and personal. “A tenacious shoving and barging during the boarding of a vehicle usually overloaded to the point of bursting takes place without a sound and with great cordiality. (I have never heard an angry word on these occasions).”

For a German Jew born to a wealthy family, this new experience of city life was tremendously exciting. During Benjamin’s childhood, in the exclusive suburbs of west Berlin, the poor scarcely existed, still less got close enough to jostle him on public transport. In his memoir, A Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin wrote of his upbringing that “the class that had pronounced him one of its number resided in a posture compounded of self-satisfaction and resentment that turned the district into something like a ghetto held on a lease. In any case, he was confined to this affluent neighbourhood without knowing any other. The poor? For rich children of his generation, they lived at the back of beyond.”

In the 1920s, Benjamin spent a lot of time in cities such as Moscow, Naples and Marseille – each in its different way giving him a cure to the disease of modern life in general, and the one in which he had been raised in particular. His compatriot, the German sociologist Max Weber, had written of the iron cage of capitalism inside which humans were submitted to efficiency, calculation and control. Cities were part of that system of control, which worked by keeping the poor and rich in their proper places. The cities that turned Walter Benjamin on were the opposite of that: porous labyrinths annulling class, time, space and even distinctions of light and dark.

Benjamin’s enthusiasm for these cities is, nearly 100 years on, contagious. Particularly as so many of the world’s leading cities have turned sclerotic – socially stratified cages to keep the riff raff out and the rest of us polishing our must-have Nespresso machines.

In Paris, the poor are banished beyond the périphérique so that when they revolt, they destroy their own banlieues rather than the French capital’s fussily maintained environment. London’s key workers strap-hang on laughable trains from distant commuter towns to serve the wealthy before being returned to their flats in time for the de facto curfew each day. Manhattan island is today a pristine vitrine on which the lower orders don’t even get to leave their mucky paw prints, but inside which the rich get to fulfil with unparallelled freedom their uninteresting desires. I’m exaggerating in each case, but not much. Many of the world’s leading cities are becoming like the Berlin that Benjamin called a prison, and from which he escaped whenever possible.

The point of the cities Benjamin loved, by contrast, was that they broke through physical, ethnic and class barriers. In Marseille, Naples and Moscow, life was not a private commodity, but “dispersed, porous, commingled”. In Naples, about which he wrote with his Latvian lover Asja Lacis, he found private life had been effectively abolished: “What distinguishes Naples from other large cities is something it has in common with the African kraal: each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life. To exist, for the northern European the most private of affairs, is here, as in the kraal, a collective matter.” He and Lacis found in Naples that “just as the living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so only much more loudly the street migrates into the living room”.

In Naples, Benjamin noted with a north European’s shock, children are up at all hours. “At midday, they then lie sleeping behind a shop counter or on a stairway. This sleep, which men and women also snatch in shady corners, is therefore not the protected northern sleep. Here, too, there is interpenetration of day and night, noise and peace, outer light and inner darkness, street and home … Poverty has brought about a stretching of frontiers that mirrors the most radiant freedom of thought.”

Is Naples today anything like the one that Benjamin and his lover eulogised? The great Italian actor Toni Servillo once told me that what he loved about Naples was that it was the world in miniature. At the time, Servillo was promoting a film called Gorbaciof, set in the Vasto, the city’s multi-ethnic district around the main railway station. And what Servillo says remains true: the great port city of Naples attracts so many immigrant communities that it can still be experienced as a messy rebuke to cities that work through de facto ethnic cleansing and social exclusion. Today, there’s a Neopolitain walking tour that takes tourists from the Senegalese market in Via Bologna, to mosques in the Pendino district, past Arab pastry shops and African hair salons, to stalls selling Maghreb crafts.

As for Benjamin, his last visit to Marseille was a bitter one. In August 1940, he found the city teeming with refugees terrified of falling into the Gestapo’s clutches. He had arrived in Marseille for an appointment at the US consulate, where he was issued with an entry visa for the United States and transit visas for Spain and Portugal.

In mid-September, Benjamin and two refugee acquaintances from Marseille decided to travel to the French countryside near the Spanish border and try to cross the Pyrenees on foot. The myopic, weak-hearted, 48-year-old philosopher made it across the border to the Catalan town of Port Bou, but then learned that the Spanish authorities were likely to return him and his fellow refugees to France – from where, most likely, they would be transferred to concentration camps and murdered.

Benjamin’s body was found in a hotel room, and it is generally thought he took a drug overdose. The inscription on his gravestone in Port Bou quotes, in German and Catalan, from one of his last essays, Theses on the Philosophy of History: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

It’s an aphorism that has been interpreted many ways, not least as suggesting that the progress of capitalism was bound up with the rise of fascism. But it also can be interpreted as pertaining to what cities are.

Benjamin didn’t live in an era in which the development of new cities often means state-of-the-art golf courses fringed with fig-leaf social housing; leaf-shaped islands for the über rich that can be seen from the international space station; and gated estates expressly designed so residents can experience that same, perilously short-leased mixture of resentment and self-satisfaction that his parents enjoyed a century ago.

Nor, of course, did Benjamin live to see the attempt to purge Marseille of its wickedness. If he had, he would doubtless have seen through the ostensible civilisation to the barbarism beneath.

Credits:  This article appeared originally in 2015 in The Guardian.

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