The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

Teach Your Automaton to Feel, and Other News

June 8, 2015 | by

Tim_Davies_-_Space_Robot_Lovers_(Scarlet_version)_postcard

Tim Davies, Space Robot Lovers, 2012.

  • At last, the time has come for robots to harness the single most powerful force known to humanity: metaphor. An attempt to teach emotional nuance to artificial intelligences, The Poetry for Robots project invites people—even decidedly unpoetic people—to react to photographs in verse, which the robots will thereafter memorize, as is their wont. “By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to ‘teach the database the metaphors’ that humans associate with pictures, ‘and see what happens.’ ”
  • Pistols at dawn! The duel, which was at the peak of its powers in the eighteenth century, enjoyed a prominent status in the literature of the era. Actually, “without literature, there would be much less to go on, historically speaking. Dueling was usually illegal. It was often tolerated, but, still, discretion was an issue—dueling at dawn was popular for reasons of secrecy … One outcome of the silence surrounding the activity was that, for first-timers, the nearest guide to protocol might lie in fiction.”
  • Vivian Gornick on Delmore Schwartz: “Like the time itself, everything about him was out of control—his beautiful, anxiety-ridden face, his stormy eloquence, his outrageous self-dramatization. He charmed and alarmed. There was a sweetness of spirit at the center of all his dishevelment that made nearly everyone who knew him hold him in tender regard.”
  • Fact: “under the right conditions, three atoms that all repel each other will be forced into an inseparable triad.” Physicists have only recently discovered what existentialists have known for a good while—“hell is other atoms.”
  • In French, the word créneau—what we’d call a crenellation, or a battlement in a castle—has taken on a rich figurative life; it can mean a parking spot, an appointment time, even a market opportunity. In other words, it’s very much like our word slot. So why not ask: “Does it mean anything that the French etymology sees appointment times, schedule segments, and parking spaces as figurative openings in a defensive wall made for ‘shooting or launching projectiles upon the enemy,’ while English speakers see them figuratively as shaped depressions made to allow pieces of wood to be fit together into useful structures?”

Strandelion, and Other News

April 2, 2015 | by

dandelionstamp

From a 1960 German postage stamp.

  • The politics of genre fiction: “the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world … The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down.”
  • Mark Strand’s final interview takes a fittingly existentialist turn: “I don’t know why I was born ... here I am: a sentient being, talking about life. I had the luck to be born a human being who can speak. I might have been a dandelion or a goldfinch. I might have been a buffalo in the zoo. A fly! I don’t know why I’m here.”
  • Philip Pullman has a transcendently simple (and hyperrealist) way of working through writer’s block: “If you’re stuck, if you’re really desperate—dialogue: ‘Hello.’ ‘Oh hello.’ ‘How are you?’ ‘Not too bad, thanks. How are you?’ ‘Not too bad.’ Half a page already.”
  • Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “was one of the only books that James Joyce, his eyesight fading, allowed himself to read while taking breaks from Finnegans Wake.” (Other admirers: Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, E. B. White, Sherwood Anderson, William Empson, and Rose Macaulay.)
  • Before he decamped for England and a lifetime of Anglophilia, T. S. Eliot “spent his formative childhood summers in a wood-shingled, seven-bedroom seaside house on Gloucester’s Eastern Point, built for his family in 1896.” The T. S. Eliot Foundation plans to turn the house into a writers’ retreat.

Hell Is Other Cats

May 2, 2013 | by

Henri the Existential Cat waxes philosophical on the price of literary fame.

 

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Night Class

January 10, 2013 | by

In the spring of 2002, I signed up for a night class in existentialism. The choice was an emotional one. College was off to a rocky start. My education had no clear purpose; my friends were more like acquaintances; the whole country was careening toward an abyss. Meaning, in other words, was elusive, and I wanted to hear from the people who’d explained its elusiveness best.

The instructor was Tom Meyer, only a lowly University of Pennsylvania graduate student, though I didn’t know it at the time. We arrived at the first class to find him sitting at a conference table, folding and unfolding a paperclip. To my immense satisfaction, he looked just like I thought an existentialist should: gaunt, pasty-faced. Black hair standing up from his skull. His clothing ratty at the collar and cuffs. For a first-day icebreaker, he had us go around the room and say our name, the name of an actor, and a type of deli meat.

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Walker Percy’s Hurricane

November 6, 2012 | by

As Sandy lashed my bay windows last week, I, like much of the northeast, spent my days mostly staring outside. Trees nodded and bowed in their ancient submission. Debris sped past. On the radio, the mayor said to stay inside. The outdoors became outer space. My world shrunk to the boxy confines of my living room.

Across my region, houses washed into the ocean, a subway system filled with water. Lives and livelihoods shattered. The hope of coastal urbanization flickered. Thousands of people were thrust into hardships heartbreaking and humbling.

It is with some shame and reluctance, then, that I admit to the ease of my own experience. I read by candlelight. Keeping me company during those days was Walker Percy. I had picked his second book—The Last Gentleman—off my shelf after I recalled its strange depiction of hurricanes as philosophically rich events that visit mass existential relief upon entire populations crushed under modern malaise. For Percy, the transformative power of a hurricane lies not just in the immediate excitement, the break in routine it brings, but more so in a storm’s capacity to limit the range of human choice, its ability to deliver a whole city from the chaotic realm of the Possible back the unquestioning mode of the Necessary.

Perhaps I was feeling some of this myself. For the first time in years, I could remain utterly idle in good faith. No pangs of guilt for my laziness, no urgencies of becoming—nothing. It seemed that gusty Sandy had summoned some powerful force from my early youth, a lightheartedness that sent me into a blissful stupor that lasted through the storm.

Which is not to say that everyone in Sandy was lucky enough to be forced into reflection. Many were forced from their homes. There was nothing theoretical about Sandy's destruction. And Percy was, essentially, a philosopher. Read More »

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