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Posts Tagged ‘dreams’

Counterpunch

October 21, 2014 | by

On a sentence by Robert Walser.

Plantin_letterpress

Plantin letterpress type. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It is worth remembering that there once was a time when every letter, number, and punctuation mark printed on paper started life as a sculpture. Someone had to make the letterforms by hand, in three dimensions; the individual characters could all look alike because they were all molten metal poured into the same mold (hence: font), but someone had to make the molds. The first time this hit home for me was when I thought about changing the type size in letterpress days: rather than pressing CTRL+> or CTRL+<, the whole font—every letter, capital and lowercase and italic and roman, every number and symbol—would have to be recarved, by hand, from scratch. Redesigned, too, since different proportions work better at different sizes. Tiny furniture’s got nothing on typefaces.

They’re sculptures, not drawings, because the angle and depth of the sides affect the look of the printed letter. These can be adequately controlled along the outline of a letter, but for the inner lines and negative spaces—the triangle in an A, the near-rectangles in a serifed E—it’s hard to gouge out the cavities precisely enough. So a D, for instance, would start out as a rod of steel whose tip is carved into a semicircle: a counterpunch, tempered to be harder than the steel of the punch. Pounding this into the flat end of another rod makes a semicircle-shaped hole. Carving around the hole makes a raised D, or rather a raised . Slamming that rod into another block of metal (softer than the steel, usually copper) makes a -shaped hole, the matrix. Pouring molten metal into that and letting it cool produces the piece of type. Then the letters are set into a stick, in reverse order; clamped together; and ink is rolled onto the surface before it is flipped again onto a sheet of paper, leaving a D-shaped black mark.

By my count, that’s five turnarounds: counterpunch, punch, matrix, piece of type, printed character. There’s a strange reversal in time, too, since every other kind of counterpunch (in boxing, in debate) reacts to the punch, while here it pre-exists the punch. I’ve never gotten tired of replaying the transformations in my mind—positive, negative, positive, negative, mirrored, counting and recounting them, following the fate of a raised waning half-moon to the empty space in a printed D. The dreamy dizziness felt like what art is. Read More »

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Oneiric Architecture and Opium

August 15, 2014 | by

Visualizing opium dreams through the etchings of Piranesi.

Title Plate

Title Plate

Prisoners on a Projecting Platform

Prisoners on a Projecting Platform

The Arch with a Shell Ornament

The Arch with a Shell Ornamental

The Drawbridge

The Gothic Arch

The Gothic Arch

The Man on the Rack

The Round Tower

The Round Tower

178054, 2012.159.18.6

The Smoking Fire

The Staircase with Trophies

The Staircase with Trophies

It’s Thomas De Quincey’s birthday today—what better time to tour the mind-bending architecture of his laudanum-fueled dreams? The famed Romantic opium addict described his vivid dreams as “the immediate and proximate cause of my acutest suffering.” In his 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he outlines their disturbing qualities. They’re extremely productive—pretty much anything he thinks about at night ends up in them; they resurrect deeply repressed memories from his childhood, accompanied by intense anxiety and melancholy, and they seem to expand time and space to the point of “unutterable infinity.”

What might this madness look like? Here De Quincey turns to ekphrasis, invoking Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), a series of etchings that depict surreal, classical-inspired dungeons:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s, Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.

Completed in the mid-eighteenth century, Piranesi’s Prisons, with their vast cavernous archways and creeping staircases, remind of the impossible constructions of M. C. Escher, though Piranesi precedes Escher by nearly two hundred years. And there’s an expressiveness to Piranesi’s line, a level of permitted imprecision radically different from Escher’s mathematically inspired print work—a certain nightmarishness, even. Through the Prisons, De Quincey manages to evoke the strange, haunting infinity of his dreams. And by setting these expansive dungeons in the mind of an addict, he gets at something key about the particular creepiness of Piranesi’s constructed prisons: the crush of infinity. There’s something claustrophobic about their sheer expansiveness. The shadowy inmates of imaginary prisons, like opium eaters, are enslaved in surplus, sentenced to learn the restrictive power of excess.

Chantal McStay studies English at Columbia University and is an intern at The Paris Review.

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Snub Your Suitors the Brontë Way, and Other News

May 2, 2014 | by

Charlotte_Bronte_coloured_drawing

She knew how to say no. Charlottë Bronte, painted by Evert A. Duyckinck, based on a drawing by George Richmond, 1873.

  • Need to reject a marriage proposal or two? Take a page from Charlotte Brontë’s book. Here’s what she wrote to Henry Nussey, a Sussex curate, in March 1839: “Do not therefore accuse me of wrong motives when I say that my answer to your proposal must be a decided negative … I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you—but … you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose.”
  • Just when you thought it’d been a while since anyone asserted the death of the novel, here’s Will Self, asserting the death of the novel. “This time it’s for real,” the headline notes.
  • What do conductors do? Divining the art of hand-flapping: “One problem some conductors encountered is what a conducting friend of mine calls the ‘Grecian Urn’ syndrome. This is where the left hand mimics the right hand exactly, tracing the outline of an antique urn. It’s more picturesque than the ‘dead hand’ syndrome, where the left hand hangs limply, but just as useless.”
  • New research suggests that Freud was right all along: our dreams are fueled by sex. “I vividly recall the day in the late 1970s when I realized that dreams and their unconscious sexual meaning were part of a larger whole … I and another orderly were given the task of delousing, showering and cleaning up an old alcoholic who had been picked up off the streets for a drying-out period … All of a sudden this emaciated, brittle old man jumped up, stared straight at us revealing a full erection and then lifted a massive metal table over his head, threw it against the wall and began wailing in ever louder sing-song tones a string of sexual expletives that left me and my colleague terrified that the man was crumbling, psychically, before our eyes.”
  • Inflammatory bowel disease “is fast becoming resistant to every antibiotic thrown at it.” But there is a kind of miracle cure: a fecal transplant. “Some doctors have likened the recoveries of desperately ill patients to those seen with anti-HIV protease inhibitors in the mid-1990s … Yet few other interventions elicit such disgust, revulsion and ridicule … What’s behind this knee-jerk aversion? Perhaps, as one epidemiologist believes, it’s the voice of our evolutionary ancestors, warning us away from a major source of parasites and other pathogens. Perhaps, says another researcher, it’s the fading of an agrarian life that equated manure with opportunity, whose cultural influence is now drowned out by public health warnings of diarrhea-borne epidemics in towns and cities. With the last lines of antibiotic defense beginning to crumble, however, getting past the cognitive dissonance of healthy poo as powerful curative could be a matter of life or death for tens of thousands of patients.”

 

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The Italian Futurists Are Coming, and Other News

February 20, 2014 | by

guggenheim-futurism-Pannaggi-thumb-620x505-76426

Ivo Pannaggi, Speeding Train, 1922.

  • Why can some people remember their dreams while others can’t?
  • And a note to perennial dreamers: positive thinking makes you less successful. In a two-year study of undergraduates, “those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries.” And those were German students—not a people given to excessive sunniness. You can imagine what this means for Americans.
  • The authors of old weather proverbs, on the other hand, were deeply pessimistic, especially about the omens of cats: “When cats sneeze it is a sign of rain. When cats lie on their head with mouth turned up expect a storm. When cats are snoring, foul weather follows.”
  • One reason to attend your son’s football games: you may meet John Grisham there, and he may offer to be your mentor.
  • “Italy’s relationship to modernity is very complicated … [The Futurists] try to do something new and not repeat what’s already been done, but in the end you can’t shake off 2,000+ years of art and culture.” On the Guggenheim’s new Italian Futurism exhibit.

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Yellow Sky

January 17, 2013 | by

Black Crow Road

A week before the tornado outbreak in May of 1999, I attended my first Native American sweat with my friend A. J., a security guard and blackjack dealer at a Cheyenne-Arapaho casino located in the town of Concho. I’d known A. J. since eighth grade, when we used to smoke cigarettes and catch crawdads in the creek behind his grandfather’s house. His grandfather sat in a recliner and smoked a pipe and spent whole afternoons staring out the window. He talked to us about luck. Good luck, bad luck. He once told us to pay attention to wind and smoke. If wind drifted the smoke east, that meant good luck. But only east. Crows are good luck, he told us, because they fly high and carry prayers to the spirits, whereas owls are considered bad luck. Rain is good luck, but only when the sun is shining. Strong winds are good luck because they are personified as divine spiritual messengers. Even ridiculously high winds that bring down power lines and trees are still considered good luck, regardless of their destruction: the overall speed of wind is unimportant because many tribes look at the path of winds as the soul of a spirit sweeping across the land. I’ve never been much into superstitions, but listening to A. J.’s grandfather talk about all this when I was a kid made me realize this was some serious shit.

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Friday: Me

June 15, 2012 | by

Gombrowicz in 1965.

We told each other our dreams. Nothing in art, even the most inspired mysteries of music, can equal dreams. The artistic perfection of dreams! How many lessons this nocturnal archmaster gives to us, the daily fabricators of dreams, the artists! In a dream everything is pregnant with a dreadful and unfinished meaning, nothing is indifferent, everything reaches us more deeply, more intimately than the most heated passion of the day. This is the lesson: an artist cannot be restricted to day, he has to reach the night life of humanity and seek its myths and symbols. Also: the dream upsets the reality of the experienced day and extracts certain fragments from it, strange fragments, and arranges them illogically in an arbitrary pattern. Read More »

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