Friday, February 26, 2016

On Unfavorable Semicircle



Atlas Obscura, a website, touts itself as your "the definitive guidebook and friendly tour-guide to the world’s most wondrous places." Well-designed and sleekly informative, the website does not disappoint, offering a compendium of eccentric tourist attractions, macabre museums, bizarre geological and natural phenomena, as well as enigmatic, crumbling ruins, both modern and ancient. The atlas accompanies descriptions of these places with photographs and maps showing the location of the wonder, including directions to the place and, when relevant, admission information. (I used Atlas Obscura in Oslo, Norway to locate the remarkably peculiar and, mostly shuttered, mausoleum of Emmanuel Vigeland – a pitch-black vault in a sedate suburb open to visitors only three hours a week.) The staples of Atlas Obscura are industrial ruins, weird rock formations, caverns, and the outdoor galleries of half-crazed outsider artists. Atlas Obscura was founded by Joshua Foer, the brother of the prominent novelist, Jonathan Foer, and Dylan Thuras. The website is operated from Brooklyn, New York.

Recently, Atlas Obscura has expanded. The site now broadcasts a blog called "Weekly Wonders" to its subscribers. For some reason, "Weekly Wonders" is transmitted about three times a week and, indeed, on some occasions, twice a day. The blog contains short essays on various curious and peculiar subjects as well as videos that the curators of the site think its followers might enjoy – as I write, there is a short video posted at the site showing a manta ray giving birth on the deck of a fishing vessel. Atlas Obscura has far flung correspondents who sometimes host events for the public – there is a chapter in Iowa and a very active Atlas Obscura society in Chicago that seems to have a close relationship with the Field Museum of Natural History.

On the morning of Thursday, February 25, 2016, I received a "Weekly Wonders" transmission from Atlas Obscura. "Unfavorable Semicircle," said to be the "creepiest" enigma on the internet, was among the "wonders" featured in the blog. The story of "Unfavorable Semicircle" is legitimately bizarre and troubling. So I will recount it here.

On March 10, 2015, someone established a You Tube channel. The channel is identified as ucizqZSNNGKhnc Rvj GlwNpWw – at least, this is the http for the You Tube site. Ten days lapsed before the first video was posted the site. This video was 4 seconds long and consisted of a silent image of a dull-brown field pierced in one location by tiny eye-shaped opening. (Some people described the eye-shaped opening as a "colored pixel.") In some accounts, a color band for calibrating image hue appears along the right side of the screen – I didn’t see this on the version that I watched. The video was labeled with a elliptical circle from which an arrow protrudes on its right side and, then, an apparently random series of numbers – the number was 230511. (The elliptical circle is, in fact, a stylized representation of the astrological symbol for Sagittarius, the Archer – viewed closely, the symbol shows a bow bent into a circle and about to release an arrow.) At intervals of ten to twenty minutes, additional videos were posted. Initially, these were four to five second silent images of the motionless brown field with the location of the eye-shaped penetration, however, varying from picture to picture. Thousands of these videos were posted, all of them labeled with the enigmatic Sagittarius symbol and a random number.

At the end of May, 2015, the channel went silent. After about ten days, Unfavorable Semicircle began posting videos again – also at a rate of four to six per hour around the clock. Around this time, the Voice first manifested itself. The Voice is indisputably male, muffled, and expressionless. The Voice sometimes says a number or names a letter. In one video, the Voice recites the alphabet. On the videos that I watched, I heard the Voice speak over the brown field marked with the speck in one corner – the Voice said something that the Reddit commentators identified as "zero" (to me, the Voice seemed to say something that sounded like "duero.")

Among the thousands of videos, apparently more than 88,000 as of this writing, are anomalous images. One image of the field with its mark lasts a full eleven hours – that video seems to have been shown in short snippets initially, then for 11 hours, and, then, was rebroadcast again for one hour. This video is silent. Another video is accompanied by an ear-splitting high-pitched whine. (Some Redditors think they hear a low-frequency rumble – a sound that triggers feelings of panic and hysteria in many people. I didn’t detect anything like this in the thirty or so images that I watched.) Several videos show blurred images although it is unclear to me whether the picture is anything other than an evanescent and abstract mist of color that changes from blue to purple or green to blue. LOCK and DELOCK are the most famous of the "Unfavorable Semicircle" anomalies. I have watched them both. DELOCK, first aired on December 28, 2015, shows a neutral field with white bars oriented at right angles to one another – the bars look faintly like calibration color-bars but without the spectrum of colors. DELOCK is accompanied by a repeated refrain, something that sounds like distorted calliope music that loops incessantly during two-and-a-half minute video. LOCK, which preceded DELOCK, is similar and features the Voice reciting something – people who have attended closely to these images claim to hear a remote, distant scream. I perked my ears for this clue but didn’t hear it.

After DELOCK, the Unfavorable Semicircle channel went silent for a few days. But beginning in February 2016, postings proliferated. Someone or something was posting videos on the site, generally the 4 second brown field shot with the eye-shaped hole, at a rate of three per minute or 180 new videos every hour. The last 28,000 videos bore a different label – these were marked BRILL followed by random numbers. On many of these videos, the Voice mutters a syllable or so – there is no music.

As of February 25, 2016, no one had any plausible explanation Unfavorable Semicircle postings. Initially, some suggested that the videos were generated by You Tube itself. Enigmatic posting earlier made to You Tube under the name Webdriver Torsocolor bars and sounds of various pitches – were revealed to be testing apparatus that You Tube was using to monitor picture and sound quality. The You Tube images posted by Unfavorable Semicircle don’t seem to have any utility of this kind – with a few exceptions the postings are simply too drab and minimalist to be used to test for image/sound quality. Other commentators think the Unfavorable Semicircle images relate to some kind of "alternative reality" game, although no one has proposed the rules of this game or how it might be played. Although some Redditors, claim the postings are malicious and cause computers to crash, I don’t think there is any substantive evidence for this theory. The most probable explanation, perhaps, is that the You Tube videos are a coded signal to covert operatives – that is, that a very few of the postings buried in the horde of featureless abstract images convey some kind of message. If this explanation were true, Unfavorable Circle would be the visual equivalent of various "Numbers Channels" discovered post-World War Two by shortwave radio enthusiasts. (The most famous of these channels is one called "The Lancashire Poacher" – this channel broadcast a mechanically generated phrase of music from a folk-song, the Lancashire Poacher, followed by a woman’s voice reciting a random series of numbers. The frequency, believed to be managed by the British Secret Service MI5, continued broadcasting at intervals through 2009). About sixty or seventy "Numbers Channels" are known to exist and they are, indeed, very odd – probably artifacts of the Cold War since several of them seem to broadcast in Cuban-inflected Spanish or Russian. If Unfavorable Semicircle is espionage, a spy code of some kind with messages embedded among thousands of instances of electronic detritus, no one is even close to understanding how the system works.

At the end of the Atlas Obscura article, a Reddit exegete of Unfavorable Semicircle is quoted: Someone should tweet a message to You Tube, the commentator suggests, and ask them what is going on with Unfavorable Semicircle. Other Reddit voices, however, quickly intervene and indicate that You Tube probably doesn’t know what is going on with the site and that informing the company about the postings might lead to the channel being shut down. "In that case," someone posts, "we will never know the solution."

The story of Unfavorable Semicircle haunted me all day. Later in the afternoon, before going home, I accessed Atlas Obscura to re-read the article. The article was generally as I remembered it. However, when I clicked on the videos from Unfavorable Semicircle posted within the blog article, they didn’t play. Instead this legend appeared in the middle of the screen – This video is no longer available because the You Tube account associated with this video has been terminated. When I tried to access the channel on which Unfavorable Semicircle broadcast, a message appeared indicated that the account had been "suspended for multiple and severe violations of You Tube policy against spam, gaming, misleading content, or other Terms of Service."

I mentioned this story to my daughter, Angelica. She was using her mother’s computer to research web images of members of the band Rammstein. My daughter told me that Unfavorable Semicircle was part of the so-called "Dark Web." I asked her about that. "It is like ‘Suicide Mouse’," she told me. "If you look at the video, you go crazy and commit suicide." She mentioned "Sad Satan," a deep-web video that was thought to be a game promoting child sexual abuse. When I sat down at the computer to see if there was any update on Unfavorable Semicircle, my daughter said: "Don’t go into the Deep Web. If you go in there, the computer will crash and you will never get out." When I began to type the name "Unfavorable Semicircle" into the computer, she fled the room.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

On Simpering



Nothing lasts. Even gestures of endearment have their season: they come and go. There is no always, nothing semper.

Consider, for example, an elegant mirror case intricately carved from elephant ivory. The little, palm-sized casket is decorated with deeply incised, almost three-dimensional images of a hustle-bustle of knights storming a castle. The castle is reduced to a synecdoche – a tower in which women in tall wimples overlook the besieging army. On the left side of the tower, a knight teetering atop a ladder has reached the parapet of the fortification. One of the women bends forward to tap him under the chin. On the opposite parapet, a knight in full armor, his face hidden in sheath of steel, also has climbed to the top of a ladder. He reaches out with his gauntlet to lightly touch the woman facing him under her chin. The mirror case was made in the second half of the 14th century and represents an allegorical figure – the storming of the castle of love, that is, the conceit in courtly romance that wooing a woman was akin to an army besieging a heavily fortified castle. This object may be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In the Metropolitan Museum in New York, you can see a gothic casket also carved from ivory in France in the middle of the 14th century. The casket shows a man on horseback riding next to a woman also mounted. The man reaches out to the woman to tap her under chin. In fact, this gesture, the so-called "chin chuck," is ubiquitous in medieval art – you can see this curious caress in medieval breviaries and illustrations to romances. Sometimes, the Christ child reaches up to touch his mother’s chin. In Book III of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cryseda, Pandarus observes the lovers petting by chin-chucking. (A reference to "chucking" in Chaucer’s Nun-Priest’s Tale is a misdirection – "chuck" is also the onomatopoeic sound that chickens make.) Shakespeare’s Macbeth indirectly refers to this gesture of endearment when he calls Lady Macbeth his "dearest chuck." As late as the early 19th century, people understood the gesture: Washington Irving describes someone "chucking a barmaid under her chin."

From these references, and many others that could be adduced, we understand that people showed affection from around 1300 (and probably much earlier) until the 1850's by tapping one another under the chin. Sometimes, the man originates the gesture; sometimes, it is the woman who performs the endearment. Children chuck their mother’s chins; mothers chuck their children’s chins. The verb "chuck," derived from old French "chocer" – "shock" or "impact" – had an erotic meaning. Today, however, I don’t think any chins get chucked except for furry ones – people often "chuck" the chins of their dogs and cats. As an erotic gesture, or, even, a form of endearment, however, the chin-chuck has become extinct.

A poem by an unknown contemporary of Robert Herrick raises a similar question about the verb "simper." Here is the complete poem:

Sweet she was, as kind a love

As ever fetter’d swain;

Never such a dainty one

Shall man enjoy again;

Set a thousand on a row

I forbid that any show

Ever the like of her,

Hey nonny nonny noe.

Face she had of filbert hue,

And bosom’d like a swan;

Back had of bended yew,

And waisted by a span.

Hair she as black as crow

From the head unto the toe,

Down, down, all over her,

Hey nonny nonny noe.

She smiled like a holy-day

And simper’d like the spring;

She prank’d it like a popinjay

And like a swallow sing;

She trip’d it like a barren doe,

She strutted like a gor-crow,

Which made the men so fond of her,

Hey nonny nonny noe.

My initial interest in this 17th century poem is the meaning of the line: "(she) simper’d like the spring." What does this mean? Ordinarily, the word "simpering" carries a negative meaning. To "simper" is to engage in a kind of hypocritical dissembling of emotion; we think of "simpering" as meretriciously feigning humility. But are there other meanings of the verb that are (or once were) positive – after all, the heroine of this verse is said to "simper" like the Spring? In northern European poetry, the season of Spring has an overwhelmingly positive denotation – so is "simper" a word that has migrated in its meaning from something praiseworthy and positive to the dark side of the lexicon?

This inquiry is essentially philological. Therefore, analysis first requires that we locate and interpret the word as used by other writers.

Shakespeare’s King Lear provides the canonical application of "simper." (In Shakespeare’s case, it is often uncertain whether he uses the word according to then-existing meaning or whether his usage of the word thereafter defines it.) At Act 4, scene 6, the mad Lear condemns sexual hypocrisy in excoriating terms:

Behold yond simpering dame

Whose face between her forks presages snow

That minces virtue and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name;

The fitchew, not the soiled horse goes to ‘t

With a more riotous appetite.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs

Though women all above.

Lear asserts that women "simper" – that is, dissemble with coy smiles – and suggests disapproval of sexual activity. (Shakespeare’s simpering dame is a monster: her face shows between her "forks", that is the twin peaks of her wimpled headdress – but, clearly, "forks" also means legs: accordingly, the "dame" has her head somehow thrust between her thighs, at her crotch or the "fork" of her body. Her simpering smile "presages snow" – that is, frigidity and sexual abstinence both in her face and between her thighs. But this prudish appearance is deceitful – in fact, the woman is truly monstrous, a "centaur" below the waist.)

Shakespeare application of the word is consistent with Philip Sidney’s usage, a few years earlier: a woman is said to appear "with a made countenance about her mouth, between simpering and smiling." In this context, we find simpering and smiling in close proximity just as we find the words adjacent in the poem cited above: "She smiled like a Holy-Day/And simpered like the Spring." "Smiling" in this setting seems sincere, while the "simper" is the contrived caricature of the smile.

Alexander Pope uses "simper" in a manner similar to the examples above: he cites "the conscious simper and the jealous leer" – again emphasizing the deceitfulness of the simper: it is "consciously" made. The word is invested with the same meaning to the present day. In Slate 2013, the singer Raffi is said to be "notable for his softly simpering style." Other examples from works as disparate as the Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee) and The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan) use the word to mean falsely coquettish or coy affectation. Although the exact origin of "simper" is unknown, etymologists suggest that the word migrated to England from the Dutch. The Dutch use the word "zimpferlik" to mean "affected" or "ostentatious." In turn, "zimpferlik" seems to derive from the German word "zimpfer", an adjective with a related, less negative meaning – in 16th century German, the word simply means "elegant" or "delicate."

(George Herbert, as in many other respects, is an outlier. Herbert died in 1633 and, therefore, lived between the generations of Shakespeare and Milton. He was a cleric who did not publish his intensely personal and idiosyncratic poetry in his lifetime. Herbert in the poem "The Search’ describes the poet’s despair at God’s seeming remoteness – he searches for signs of God’s presence everywhere and reports that looking skyward:

Yet can I mark how

Stars above

Simper and shine.
Here, most commentators would define "simper" in terms of an obsolete sense meaning "so sparkle" or "scintillate." However, I’m not convinced. Herbert’s speaker is appalled by God’s apparent absence from the world – thus, the sparkling of the stars seems to him to be false and meretricious. In fact, my guess is that Herbert also meant that "simper" suggest a coy or coquettish suggestion of something that is withdrawn and kept apart from speaker. The "simpering" stars are hypocritical in that they suggest God’s grandeur when, in fact, He is hidden. I like the notion that the sparkling of stars is a form of "simpering". Thus:

Simper, Simper little star

How I wonder what you are...
Or the Marine Corps motto: Simper Fi – that is, "simpering in a faithful manner.")

This philological excursion is directed toward discovering whether there is an alternative meaning to "simper" without the negative connotations of that word. No evidence demonstrates that "simper" means anything but to smile in a dissembling, coy, and affected manner. And, of course, this meaning is warranted on closer reading. Influenced by the powerfully evocative line "she smiled like a Holy Day" – the line used by Auden as the title to the poem in his famous 1938 anthology, The Oxford Book of Light Verse – I have misread the poem. (Auden seems to have lifted the line from the verse to name the poem – he also alters the orthography slightly in the title: "She smiled like a holiday" – not "Holy Day" as appears in the text. It is interesting that this title influenced me to misunderstand the whole poem – we should not underestimate the effect that a title has on our perception of a text.)

Inspected more carefully, this anonymous poem does not seem to praise the lady described. To the contrary, the terms of approbation used are ironic. Irony is famously difficult to ascertain, although, perhaps, not in this context. What does the poem really say about the lady that is its subject?

Swains, it seems, are enamored with the girl – therefore, her appeal is rural, or "country" as Shakespeare might say with the accent on the first syllable of that word. Indeed, it appears that the lass is available to be "enjoyed". The poem tells us that she is one of "pretty maids" all in a row – an allusion to the nursery rhyme "Mary, Mary, quite contrary" – that allusion suggests that we should consider this country girl’s merits, perhaps "contrariwise"; in other words, what seems to be praise might, instead, be sarcasm.

The inventory of the girl’s charms supports this "contrariwise" reading of the poem. The lady’s skin is "filbert hue" – in other words, she is a "nut-brown girl. This complexion signifies that her skin is tanned – contrary to received fashion and canons of beauty in the 17th century. (Pale was good; sun-tanned skin suggested vulgarity, the complexion of a milk-maid.) Her back is like a "bended yew". This simile is puzzling – yew trees produced flexible wood much-prized for use in making bows. A back like a "bended yew" suggests sexual flexibility – I presume that the meaning is similar to the line in the blues tune: "Rock me baby, rock me good and long / Rock me like my back ain’t got no bone." The young woman’s waist is grotesquely small – a "span" or the distance between thumb and the tip of the little finger, in most people about nine inches. She is hairy – the poem quibbles on the meaning of "down," here both a direction and soft brown fur.

The only image conventionally denoting beauty is the likeness of the girl’s breast to a swan – that is, soft and white. However, the animal similes with which the poem concludes undercut any notion that the woman is conventionally beautiful. She "pranks" –that is, dresses ostentatiously – like "a popinjay." A "popinjay" is a vain and conceited person. She "trips" it (prances) like a "a barren doe." (The phrase means exactly what it says – a female deer that is sterile and has no fawns; this is not the forum to enter the longstanding debate among outdoorsmen and hunters as to whether there is such a thing as a "barren doe." Generally, hunters who saw a doe without fawns assumed the female deer was "barren" – that is, sterile; this assumption arises from the idea that does were always expected to be seen in the company of their fawns. In fact, without careful anatomical analysis, it can not be reliably determined whether a doe is sterile or not.) Finally, the woman is likened to a "gorcrow." A "gorcrow" is a "gore-crow," that is a "carrion" crow – probably not something to which a young woman would wish to be compared. Complicating the picture, however, is the reference to her voice like a swallow singing. A swallow’s song is not unpleasant and, in fact, would be found melodious by most people – it is certainly not the harsh and abrasive cry of the crow. Accordingly, the verse mixes imagery that is adverse to the lady with praise – the white bosom of the swan, the tiny waist (perhaps?), and the swallow’s song all seem calculated as praise.

This curious mixture of praise undercut by ironic metaphors is exemplified in the central lines in the poem – the girl "smiles" like a Holy Day, and "simpers" like the Spring. The smile of the Holy Day seems unambiguously praiseworthy and positive. But it is equally clear that the "simper" of Spring is invested with negative qualities – Spring pretends to kindly warmth and fruitfulness, but this smile can be deceitful: a cold night might bring frost and ice and violent storms may imperil the growing crops.

The contrast between the authentic smile and meretricious simpering characterizes the poet’s ambivalence about the lady described. The little lyric exemplifies the vehement paradoxes of romantic love – the object of desire is, at once, adored and reviled. Shakespeare’s sonnets supply, perhaps, the best example of this effect. In Sonnet 130, the dark lady is described as having "black wires" for hair; her breath is not "perfume’d" but said to "reek" and her breasts are not alabaster but rather "dun." Nonetheless, the poet persists in his devotion, although his mistress is not a goddess treading upon this earth:

And, yet, by heaven, I think my love rare

As any she belied by false compare.

As always, Shakespeare’s succinct brilliance renders the other, later poem superfluous. There is nothing in the verse Auden called "She smiled like a holiday" that is not more forcefully and effectively expressed in Sonnet 130. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s sonnet suggests an application to the verse Auden anthologizes in his 1938 volume. Ultimately, what is it that "simpers"? – the lady, of course, but, also, the metaphors of conventional love poetry that the verse subverts. Shakespeare unmasks an element of "simpering" insincerity in conventional love poetry. As Sonnet 130 reminds us, "false compare" is the literary equivalent of "simpering." An inauthentic metaphor, particularly, in a love poem is one way that language "simpers."

Saturday, February 6, 2016

On a Mechanical Bird




I don’t recall exactly where I acquired the robot-bird. But I think it was a gift of uncertain provenance received at my mother-in-law’s house. The weekend before Christmas, my mother-in-law hosts a gathering at her home in Albert Lea and gifts are exchanged. This year, I drove back to Austin with a couple of plastic bags loaded with gifts. In one of those bags, I discovered a small box containing a red plastic cardinal. The cardinal was made in China and the legend on the box assured me that the little plastic effigy was equipped with a motion detector so that it would sing when something stirred in its presence. I believe that the bird, about three inches tall with bright eyes and red folded wings, was designed to perch on the branch of a Christmas tree – at least, there was a small clamp between its black wire feet.

At home, I removed the automaton from its box. A strand of filmy plastic extruded from the bird’s underside. I extracted the rectal integument from the cardinal and, immediately, it began to chirp at me. The mechanical bird’s song was a repetitive melody comprised of three different sounds. First, the bird made a shrill noise like "Soo-eee Soo-eee." This was followed by two chirps best approximated by that onomatopoeic word, "Chirp - Chirp". A metallic rat-a-tat-tat followed, a noise that simulated bird song only by its proximity to sounds that were vaguely avian – that rat-a-tat-tat might also have been a sound plausibly associated with rocket-fired laser beams dissolving oncoming enemy aliens in an arcade game. The bird’s cry was rhythmic, high-pitched and easily audible from a distance of thirty or forty feet – if I set the bird in another room, I could hear it singing across the distance, even with a shut door intervening.

The cardinal’s song was, indeed, motion-activated. If nothing moved, the robot-bird didn’t sing. However, the photo-electric detectors were sensitive – on occasion, I heard the bird mysteriously crying-out in an empty room, animated, I suppose, by motes of dust dancing in a sunbeam, or an unstable pile of books and magazines slightly shifting or, perhaps, the shadow cast by a car passing in the alleyway so as to cause the light to flicker in the vacant space. Maybe, ghosts crowded around the little bird, curious as to its mechanism, and this caused it to sing.

I brought the bird to my law office and set it on my bookshelf near the door opening into my room. When my secretary or associates entered my office, the bird greeted the. Whether this appealed to you or an annoyance depended on your disposition. Some of staff took to stooping and bending to avoid activating the bird. I suppose they found its repetitive shrill cries an annoyance.

Hephaestus, the lame smithy to the Olympian gods, was said to have fabricated singing automaton birds from iron. The Greek engineer, Ancytas, designed a mechanical pigeon capable of flight round 400 BC – it is not recorded whether that prodigy could also sing. Various Chinese emperors amused themselves with robot-birds equipped with the power of song. In the fifth century BC, the Mohist adept, Lu Ban, built a wooden bird capable of remaining aloft for three days – it was, I suppose, a kind of drone. Of course, Hans Christian Andersen refers to singing Chinese bird automatons in his famous story of the emperor and nightingale. In that tale, we are told that a Chinese emperor owned a live nightingale that sang most beautifully. Concerned that the little bird might die, the emperor commissioned an artisan to make a replica of the nightingale capable of song simulating the live animal. The replica was so beautiful and sang so dependably that the emperor preferred it to the actual nightingale and, indeed, even allowed that creature to escape into the forest. The automaton failed and could not be repaired and, so, the emperor sickened. As he lay dying, he heard a sweet song – the actual nightingale had returned from its haunts in the forest and was singing to him. The living bird’s song was an antidote to the emperor’s malaise and he rallied. In this fable, we detect several themes revolving around mechanical singing birds – first, the robot-bird seems associated with the human desire for immortality, the hope to attain a prosthetic, and, therefore, deathless body; second, the story rouses a sense of pathos in those who hear it – we imagine the living nightingale disregarded and singing forlornly in the dark, green woods and, then, consider the fate of the broken toy-bird, the damaged robot that is cast away, a source, as it were, for all of mutilated and pathetic automatons in later fiction and films, for instance, the disfigured robots in Spielberg’s A.I.

Cuckoo clock makers in the Black Forest around 1730 began installing singing birds in their time-pieces. Accordingly, in Western Europe, automaton birds were first manufactured as horological devices. (In Enlightenment France, a duck was built by Jacques Vaucanson to simulate, not bird song, but the alimentary canal of a fowl – food was fed into one end of the automaton, digested and, then, excreted at the other end. This machine is precursor to the nightmare Cloaca, an immense art work by Wim Delvoye that transforms food into fecal material. The golden robotic bird emitting song has as its counterpart the mechanical duck intestine producing shit.) By the middle of the 19th century, elaborate bird-robots were built by Parisian toy manufacturers, particularly Bontems and Roullet & Decamps – these birds were, in effect, intricately constructed music boxes. When the cloisonne box was opened onto its velvet interior, a small iridescent humming bird was disclosed perched on a shell of mother-of-pearl – a wasp-sized automaton that fluttered its tiny wings and sang loudly. Such mechanisms were expensive and wonderfully useless – to own and collect such things was a symbol for decadence, esthetic folly, an embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s dictum that all art is perfectly useless.

Yeats probably knew the story of the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Muqtadir, the ruler of Baghdad in the early tenth-century. Al-Muqtadir was ineffective as a warrior – he lost territory to the Greeks and had to pay massive ransoms to retrieve noblemen captured in those debacles. The Caliph was more interested in his collection of robotic singing birds, mechanisms that delighted him with their chirping perched on boughs and twigs of trees made entirely from gold. Al-Muqtadir lingered in his harem, delighting in its pleasures and savoring the singing of his flocks of mechanical birds. As the kingdom collapsed, the people revolted in the streets. Again, the automaton bird is a symbol of decadence and self-indulgence. The City Guards dragged Al-Muqtadir from his seraglio and hacked him to death outside the gates to Baghdad.

Yeats was appalled by "decrepit age," a condition that he said was attached to him "like the tail of a dog." In his two great poems about Byzantium, Yeats imagines a singing mechanical bird as a prosthetic body, a machine made from gems and intricate enmeshed clockwork to replace the mire of flesh and blood. In "Sailing to Byzantium," the poet proclaims that his physical body, a "dying animal," will be replaced by this "artifice of eternity":

Once out of nature I shall never take

my bodily form from any natural thing

but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
(The song of a mechanical bird is repetitive – notice Yeats heavy, soporific repetition of the long-syllables "form" and "gold": goldsmiths, gold and gold enamelling, a golden bough, all of these words chiming with the "om" pronounced in "Byzantium" and "to come." The bird’s song here doesn’t so much arouse the drowsy emperor as plunge him deeper into revery and, then, sleep.)

This same mechanical bird appears as well in "Byzantium". In that poem, the automaton symbolizes the prosthetic machine that replaces the flesh, a kind of "death-in-life":

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork

More miracle than bird or handiwork,

Planted on the starlit golden bough,

Can like the cocks of Hades crow,

Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud,

In glory of changeless metal,

Common bird or petal,

And all complexities of mire or blood.
Like the mechanical bird in Andersen’s fairy tale, the emperor scorns the "common bird." But Yeats, of course, expects his readers to recall that fable and understand that the salvation offered by the golden robotic bird is both quixotic and fatally flawed.

My red-molded plastic bird flashed against the winter, a droplet of blood amidst the grey gears of blizzard and ice-storm. But like all mechanical things, the cardinal was prone to fail and, ultimately, its machinery broke-down. In mid-January, the robot-bird began to sing without stopping. The automaton’s motion sensor either malfunctioned in its "on" mode or became manically sensitive detecting the Brownian motion of air molecules or minute tremors in the crust and mantle of the Earth or, perhaps, the filmy spirits of the dead as they wandered here and there. The bird’s cries contained unabated for several days, extending across a weekend when my office was mostly vacant. Conceived as an unceasing song, the cardinal’s melody took on the character of a lament – at first, I detected a tone of sullen resentment in the chirping that, later, lapsed into indignant resignation and, then, exhaustion: endless iterations of the same mechanical song looping again and again and, as is wont to happen with minimalist music, absorbing emotions and timbre circumambient to the repeated sound. As the cardinal’s cries continued, the robot was banished to more and more distant locales. After a day or so, the bird was placed in the men’s toilet, perched uneasily on the urinal. But the tiles in the toilet echoed and seem to redouble the vigor of the bird’s song and, so, someone placed the automaton in the medicine cabinet, behind a mirror reflecting the strained and haggard features of those condemned to hear the bird’s endlessly repetitive chirping. Confined in the medicine cabinet, the cardinal continued to sing, prompting me, at last, to place the bird in an basement room where old, closed files rest in their thousands on bare wooden shelves. At the corner of that room, an ancient steel desk occupies an alcove and in a crooked and grim space under a flight of descending steps, there is a file cabinet that seems to have been retrieved from a military installation or some long-forgotten, and long-shuttered asylum for the insane – a drab khaki-colored filing cabinet, apparently, immensely heavy, its corners and sides dented as if it had been rolled down the side of a rocky ravine, a metal boulder, a meteorite with drawers in its forgotten crater in the bowels of the law office. I found the filing cabinet, cold as ice to the touch, completely empty and, so, I secreted the cardinal in that place, wrapped in a ragged towel and lying on its side in the cabinet’s top drawer. The bird continued to sing defiantly sensing ghostly motions that were completely concealed from me.

A day later, the cold sarcophagus of the filing cabinet seemed to have affected the bird’s song. The cardinal’s tones were now metallic, a kind of tapping at subterranean walls, each chirp distorted and raw. Periodically, I visited the file room and looked at the shelves groaning with the weight of a thousand transactions, innumerable divorces and criminal charges, deaths and personal injuries, cars shattered on lonely highways and partnerships defunct or wrecked by avarice or misunderstanding, wills and estate disputes, bankruptcies, dwellings invaded by water or vermin, traumatic amputations, pre-nuptial agreements and adoptions – the whole vast and variegated pattern of human life and, all of this opposed, it seemed, by the failing voice of the cardinal, the robot’s cries increasingly distraught, fragmented, heard as if at immense distance. And, then, at last, the mechanical bird stopped singing.

A week passed. One morning, as I parked my car next to our law office, I saw a curious black angular package lying in the scurf of ice and slush in the driveway. I didn’t pay any attention to the strange valise until later, when I met my partner in our break room. As he poured coffee for himself, my partner said that someone had knotted a dead crow around the handle on the law firm’s front door. "I got a paper towel and pulled the crow out of the door and tossed it in the parking lot," he said. This made me curious and I went outside, approaching the black parcel lying on the ice. On closer inspection, I saw that it was, indeed, a large crow, frozen stiff as iron, with its wings outstretched so that the dead animal made a roughly rectangular silhouette against the crumbling ice. The crow’s head as bent to an odd angle and both its eyes had been pecked out so that the carcass had a peculiarly abstract appearance. I could see no wound on the desiccated animal. I plucked the dead crow out of the winter’s debris and set it atop a garbage can. Later several other crows approached the dead bird, worried it a bit with their beaks, and, then, knocked the carcass back onto the driveway, darting up to perch on an overhead power line. The crows saluted the grey, colorless day with a few disgruntled cries.

"What does it mean?" my partner asked me.

"I don’t know," I said.

"Someone doesn’t like us much," my partner remarked.

Of course, we are lawyers and have many enemies.

That afternoon, the red plastic cardinal revived. As I stood in the mortuary of closed files, the bird began to sing once more. The robot-cardinal’s chirping was muffled by the heavy metal filing cabinet in which it was immured. I slid open the filing cabinet and picked up the plastic bird. It sang with renewed and vibrant energy, sounding shrill and piercing notes. Some new and sinister energy suffused the automaton and, when I set it on the shelf, the cardinal was unbalanced, toppling over and refusing to be set upright, perhaps, tipsy with the volume of its cries. It was too much, of course, and, so, I imprisoned the bird in the filing cabinet again. When I checked on the automaton the next day, it was silent. The bird rested on its side in the empty upper drawer of the filing cabinet – there is nothing so inert has a robot that has stopped working.

In the summer, someone brought their drone to the office. We stood in the parking lot as the man programmed the little flying machine. Then, its rotors buzzed and the drone rose upward, tentatively at first, tilting this way and that, but, then, climbing high above the parked cars and, even, the utility poles and their crisscrossing power lines from which the crows were wont to regard the shingles on our roof and the tops of the trees where the squirrels were nested. The drone broadcast pictures back to us – out-of-body images of the bald spot on the top and back of my head. Standing on the asphalt, heads cocked up att he drone, we seemed particularly weak, mortal, naked to the pitiless sky. We looked at ourselves from the drone’s aerial vantage, watching the images on the drone operator’s computer tablet. It was warm and sunny. The drone dropped down to chest height and hovered among us. A starling in a nearby tree rendered its dismay at the invasion of its aerial realm with a skeptical and raucous cry.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On Urological Symptoms




Professor S–, emeritus at the University of Minnesota, is eloquent and speaks with the precise and expressively allusive diction of a literature scholar. Although his specialty is modern American novelists, writers like Robert Stone and Norman Mailer, Professor S– is widely read and flavors his discourse with quotations from Dostoevsky, Kafka, and, of course, Shakespeare.

The business of adorning one’s conversation with allusions is tricky, a balancing act. If the citation is too familiar, the allusion risks condemnation as a cliche or a mere truism. Alternatively, one who cites to a text that is too abstruse runs the risk of seeming to speak nonsense. An unattributed reference to a barren and obscure verse from Spenser or the Lotus Sut ra may simply mystify listeners and cast doubt on the sanity or good faith of the speaker. Some literary works such as Hamlet or certain poems by Keats or Robert Frost or Edgar Alan Poe are so well-known that they furnish quotations to their cognoscenti only from those textual pitches and declivities less frequently traversed by readers. It was a quote of this latter kind that caught my attention during my recent lunch with Professor S–.

The esteemed scholar was indexing for my dismay a variety of physical ailments from which had suffered during the interim between our luncheons – distance and scheduling prevents me from seeing this gentleman more than every three months or so. We were seated in a pizza place near the intersection of two thoroughfares famous in the city, a quiet place where familiar drunks sat on their familiar barstools as the morning turned the corner into a gloomy afternoon, a dark day a week or so before Christmas. Professor S– explained to me certain urological afflictions that filled me with dismay and nauseous horror – I have an intense terror of blood, particular swampy clotted blood, and hematuria induces such vertiginous disquiet that I am apt to swoon. Fortunately, I had ordered a tall beer and could sip on that beverage while Professor S– spoke, taking some solace in the slight blurry warmth that the alcohol produced – it was if a tiny discontinuity had opened between Professor S–‘s words and my audition of those words, a little fissure that was sufficient to keeping his horrific tale at the slight, but significant, distance.

Professor S– could not be faulted for his narrative. I had asked him directly how he was feeling and, further, made inquiries as to his health and he was merely providing me an answer to these questions. Furthermore, Professor S– had warned me that I might find his account disquieting. Here is what he had said:

"If I were tell the whole story it would make your hairs stand on end like quills upon the fearful porpentine."

The expression "quills upon the fearful propentine" baffled me. "What is a propentine?" I asked, thinking that he was referring to some kind of aquatic animal, perhaps a hybrid between a terrapin and a porpoise. "Porpentine?" he said. "It means ‘porcupine’ – it’s from Hamlet." I told him that I thought the quote was very wonderful.

When I returned home, that phrase involving the "porpentine" had dissolved a little in my mind, become as slippery as a stepping stone a half-inch under the swift-flowing waters of a mountain stream. "If I tell you what happened," I said to my wife,"your will be as shocked as the fretted propentine." The adjective "fearful" had dropped from my imagination and I now pronounced the "porpentine" to be "fretted". The notion of a "fretted porpentine" seemed to wonderfully apt that I used the phrase a number of times to amuse myself and those with whom I was speaking.

A few weeks later, I read Hamlet and tracked the quotation to its source. In Act I, scene V, Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost and has a colloquy with that spirit. The ghost tells Hamlet that he is enduring the torments of purgatory, a fate so awful that

To tell the secrets of my prison house

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.

"Porpentine", I see, is an old word for "porcupine" – derived from Latin "porcu," meaning, of course, "pig". "Spine" seems to be a translation from the Greek "acantha" into Latin as "spina" or Old French "espina", meaning "thorny" or "spiny." Hence, "porpentine" means "spiny pig."

But how I had substituted "fretted" for "fearful"? Perhaps, I had made no substitution at all. Several definitions for "porpentine" cited Hamlet at Act I, scene V, and those quotations glossed the usage of the word with the phrase "propentine." Indeed, all other editions of Hamlet that I consulted seemed to prefer the reading "fretful" porpentine for " fearful" porpentine.

"Fret" is a word derived from various old English and Germanic terms for eating ravenously or like an animal. "Fressen" in German means, in effect, to devour one’s food like an animal – descriptions of humans eating use the word "essen"; cows and dogs at their victuals are subject to forms of "fressen". Thus, "fretting" had come to mean being "eaten away" by something. The "eating away" can be literal as in the "fretwork" stone ornamentation around a Gothic arch – the "fretwork" is a arabesque pattern, vaguely floral and symmetrical cut into (or ‘eaten out of") the stone above an medieval Cathedral window. Metaphorically, to "fret" is to be devoured by ravenous and uncontrollable fears or worries. Hence, describing a porpentine as "fretful" makes perfectly logical sense: first, the little creature is worried and fearful, thus inducing its prickly noli me tengare reaction, the erection of a portcullis of quills around the rodent; second, the erect sphere of quills englobing the animal is like "fretwork", that is, an elaborate spiky pattern replete with sharp and rebarbative edges. Not surprisingly, therefore, most sources attribute the quality of "fretful" to the porpentine imaged by the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Shakespeare’s imagination operates associatively. If he happens upon a word or metaphor that is particularly apt to the concerns of his play, Shakespeare reiterates that expression, playing variations on the theme with an obsessive intensity. Clearly, something is fretting, or worrying, the body politic in Denmark. Hamlet’s brooding is a species of fretting. And, as a consequence, variants on the word "fret" appeas twice in the play – in addition, to the phantom adjective that I imagined modifying propentine (a place in the text where the word doesn’t appear).

In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet notes that he is melancholy and "has lost all mirth (and) forgone all custom of exercises" – that is, abandoned his normal routine. Hamlet says that the world has lost its savor and seems a "sterile promontory," a "congregation" of "foul and pestilential vapors". He asserts this perception notwithstanding the fact that earth is objectively beautiful, its "brave o’erhanging firmament...a majestical roof fretted with golden fire." In this application, "fretted" means adorned – although an adornment that is a form of ulceration: the firmament is pierced with openings through which the fire of the empyrean shines. Later in the same act, Hamlet reproaches Guildenstern for manipulatively interrogating him:

"S’blood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe. Call me what instrument you will, although you fret me, you can not play upon me."

Here the word "fret" has a double meaning – that is, "harass" or "annoy" and, also, to play an instrument by putting fingers on its "frets" (that is, ridges to guide fingering on a stringed instrument.)

The shadow of these words falls across our "propentine". As a consequence, I imagine the quills of the animal standing upright to signify that the beast, like Hamlet, is "fretful."

In my mind, the word "porcupine" is Native American, even, perhaps, derived from the Lakota. I know this is untrue but the idea persists because of certain of my enthusiasms. One of the pleasures of driving across South Dakota is tuning your radio to KILI, 90.3 FM, the voice of the Lakota nation. KILI was founded by Russell Means, the Lakota activist in 1983, and the station broadcasts from its transmitter tower at Porcupine, South Dakota, a tiny hamlet on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The signal is powerful and you can track it from the Missouri breaks at Chamberlain all the way past the Badlands and to Rapid City. KILI’s broadcasts are peculiarly endearing: the station frequently plays requests, mostly a combination of head-banger heavy metal and classic blues interrupted occasionally by traditional drum-circle songs. Since many Indians are war veterans, the announcer often dedicates his tunes to the "brothers" in the VA hospital in Sturgis, old warrior alcoholics watched over by the sacred mountain, Bear Butte. There’s a lot of dead air on KILI, long intervals of silence when, it seems, that the DJ has left the room, and, even, perhaps, the station. Between halting, incoherent interviews, KILI plays public service announcements – advisories about fetal alcohol syndrome or pot lucks at local churches or "honor rides": on the reservation, it seems, that people are always gathering in processions to ride on horseback (or, sometimes, on motorcycles) across the beautiful and barren land – the reddish serrated teeth of badlands always on the horizon – to commemorate something or other. The announcers giggle and make inside jokes: on KILI’s website today there is an effusive article about the installation of new air conditioner in the studio at Porcupine. Most of all, I like the way that the on-air disc jockeys pronounce "porcupine." At KILI, the fretful "porcupine" is a "porky-pine".