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Fractals, Man, They’re Everywhere, and Other News

January 27, 2016 | by

David Foster Wallace famously used the Sierpinski gasket, above, as a model for the structure of Infinite Jest. Image: Nevit Dilmen, 2006

  • Many reasonable people have concluded that the only way to stay sane in New York City is to be drunk all the time. It was just a matter of time until the advantages of this lifestyle reached the theater community and seeped into its most pious sect, the Shakespeareans—and so was Drunk Shakespeare: “The gimmick here is that at each performance, one actor begins by consuming enough shots to trip even the best-trained tongue … There’s a fair amount of impaired performing going around … What sets Drunk Shakespeare apart is that alcohol isn’t the main character. It’s more like an enabler, allowing the actors (sober and drunk) to take all sorts of liberties with Shakespeare, but skillfully.”
  • In the UK, at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, a show called “death: the human experience” attempts to succeed where commercial culture has failed: at selling death. “The show repackages death into friendly jewel-pink tones and soft lowercase letters, yet does not shy away from frank presentation of the processes that surround death. Visitors can peruse a model of the mortician’s workplace, where bodies are embalmed and dressed for funerals … One of the final displays, a digitized version of Don Celender’s 1982 ‘Reincarnation Study,’ punctuates a gloomy subject with humor. Celender, an artist and professor, asked dozens of celebrities ‘in which form would you like to return?’ Julia Child, an American chef and television personality, responded with a list: ‘three inches shorter, feet two sizes smaller, flat stomach, capacity to eat all day and not gain a pound, otherwise Okay as is.’ ”
  • Not unrelatedly, here’s the Polish writer Filip Springer on Przyczółek Grochowski, a famously bleak housing complex in Warsaw:You can’t even die here in dignity,’ I overhear someone say on Bracław Street. ‘You can’t even get a coffin in and out of the apartments. They have to wait with it downstairs. The sexton wraps the corpse in a sheet and shoves it out the window. I saw it happen once. They were carrying a dead man. His hands were dangling. No dignity at all, but how else are you going to do it? That’s why all the furniture people have has to be collapsible.’”
  • Today in fractals: they’re everywhere, dude. In Joyce—fractals. In Proust—fractals. In Cortázar, Woolf, Dos Passos, Bolaño—fractals, fractals, all fractals, sometimes even multifractals. This per science: “Some of the world’s greatest writers appear to be, in some respects, constructing fractals. Statistical analysis carried out at the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, however, revealed something even more intriguing. The composition of works from within a particular genre was characterized by the exceptional dynamics of a cascading (avalanche) narrative structure. This type of narrative turns out to be multifractal … The study involved 113 literary works written in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and Spanish … To convert the texts to numerical sequences, sentence length was measured by the number of words … The dependences were then searched for in the data … This is the posited question: If a sentence of a given length is x times longer than the sentences of different lengths, is the same aspect ratio preserved when looking at sentences respectively longer or shorter?”
  • John Lingan on Johnny Mercer, the songwriter who had a string of hits in the 1930s and ’40s: “Beyond his lyrics’ rural and black affectations—the dropped g’s, the cornpone scenery—Mercer brought a distinctly Southern stillness to American pop. Economical yet vivid in his natural descriptions, he kept his songs’ emotions at a cool simmer and rarely told stories, instead opting for calm, wistful dioramas … He preferred to write lyrics while supine, eyes closed, ‘as if he could dream songs into existence,’ according to the critic Wilfrid Sheed. His entire public persona was built around this same aloofness; onstage (a rare occurrence, though he became better known for live performances in the 1970s), his mind seemed to be elsewhere, and even his Tinseltown reminiscences seem muted, obligatory.”


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