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Posts Tagged ‘Iris Murdoch’

Thanks, Sounds Good, I Love You

December 17, 2015 | by

How Smart Reply attempts to mimic the way we talk.

Google’s inbox logo—now with an enviable, elusive sense of satisfaction.

Last month, researchers at Google unveiled Smart Reply, a piece of artificial intelligence that scans the e-mail you’re reading on your phone and suggests three possible responses. Why bother composing an answer yourself? Now you can choose one of Smart Reply’s with a quick tap. “Do you have any vacation plans set yet?” asks the sample e-mail. “No plans yet,” you might choose; or “I just sent them to you”; or “I’m working on them.”

Smart Reply uses neural networks to calibrate its future suggestions, meaning it learns from how we use it. But Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist on the project, observed a “bizarre feature of our early prototype”: “its propensity to respond with ‘I love you’ to seemingly anything.” Analysis suggested “that the system was doing exactly what we’d trained it to do, generate likely responses—and it turns out that responses like Thanks, Sounds good, and I love you are super common.” Read More »

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Premium Unleaded, and Other News

December 16, 2015 | by

Frank Lloyd’s gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota.

  • In November 1994, George Plimpton interviewed Garrison Keillor at 92Y as part of a collaboration with The Paris Review. You can listen to a recording of their interview here—and now the PBS series Blank on Blank has animated part of it. “I think that you’re only obliged to be a humorist from maybe the age of eighteen until you turn thirty,” Keillor tells Plimpton. “Past the age of thirty, I don’t think there’s any obligation to be clever at all. After that, you, I think, are supposed to settle down, be a good person, raise your children, and be good to your friends, which you may not have been when you were very clever, and try to atone for your cleverness. Humor has to surprise us. Otherwise it isn’t funny, and, it’s a death knell for a writer to be labeled humorous, because then, of course, it’s not a surprise anymore, it’s what expected of him. And when you come to expect humor of people, you will never get it.”
  • Last month, Oxford Dictionaries named the “tears of joy” emoji its Word of the Year; now Merriam-Webster has followed suit, choosing a suffix, -ism, as its Word of the Year. Now, before you get all exercised and sit down to write an indignant op-ed about all these nonword words the dictionaries insist on force-feeding us, be advised that “Merriam-Webster notes that the version of -ism without the hyphen actually is a word, specifically a noun meaning ‘a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory’ or ‘an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief’ … Last week, Dictionary.com bravely bucked this year’s trend by naming a word as their word of the year. They selected identity, citing increased conversation this year over gender and sexual identity, in large part because of former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out as a transgender woman.”
  • Fact: Frank Lloyd Wright designed a gas station. It was but one element in a vast, unrealized utopia he’d planned to erect in Buffalo, New York, which remains, alas, a largely dystopian place. But in 1958, when Wright was ninety, one part of his idyllic vision found its way to Cloquet, Minnesota, and an historic gas station was born: “Wright had designed a house for a resident of Cloquet named R. W. Lindholm, who happened to be in the petroleum business. Wright never gave up on his utopian city, and knowing what his client did for a living, he convinced Lindholm to build a gas station that was similar in design to the Buffalo station … Wright saw the car as a way to personal freedom for Americans, so he gave the drivers of Cloquet what he thought that future needed in a gas station, including an observation deck where the attendants could watch for cars in warmth and comfort.” Forget Fallingwater. This is Tricklinggasoline.
  • “I have in fact only once corresponded with anyone … who was as good at writing letters as I am,” Iris Murdoch once told the philosopher Philippa Foot. So this new book of her correspondence must be a veritable tour de force of jocularity and fluent intellect, yes? Well. John Mullan hates to break it to you, but “the brilliant thinker, witty conversationalist and powerfully idiosyncratic novelist are hardly here at all … Some have responded to the publication of these letters by depicting Murdoch as a rather shocking sexual adventuress, but this is not quite right. Really, she seems more interested in writing letters to people she found attractive than in having sex with them.”
  • What was the deal with Hawthorne and Melville? The heat that emanated from the hearth of their friendship was … well, hot. Melville once wrote, for example, that Hawthorne “shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.” But, as Jordan Alexander Stein notes, anyone wishing to prove some erotic intent on either writer’s part has a heavy burden: “Writers of the mid-nineteenth century did not have available to them the same expressive concision as those of us today who might speak glibly of topping and bottoming … Melville wrote of Hawthorne with undeniably sexy language. What proves more elusive are the feelings to which, with any precision, this language can be said to refer … The issue, then, is whether serious scholars writing about famous authors can reasonably deign to take dick jokes as evidence. And if we are indeed willing to take them as evidence, just how do we go about determining what kind of evidence they are?”

Iris Murdoch’s Favorite Painting

July 15, 2015 | by

Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas, ca. 1570–76, oil on canvas, 83" × 81".

Iris Murdoch, who would be ninety-six today, thrilled to paintings of every stripe, but she was compelled by one work in particular: Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, from the late sixteenth century. She mentions it in her 1990 Art of Fiction interview:

INTERVIEWER

Do you see a painting you are particularly interested in and think, I might be able to use that some day in a novel, or I’d like to use it because it attracts and interests me?

MURDOCH

The novel often indicates a painting during the process of creating the characters. Somehow the character will lead to the painting. A great painting that I have only recently seen—it lives in Czechoslovakia—is Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. He was over ninety when he painted it. This painting gives me very much, though I have only referred to it indirectly.

Elsewhere, Murdoch has called the painting the greatest in the Western canon. It makes prominent appearances in her novels A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Black Prince, and Jackson’s Dilemma; she even went so far as to include it in the background of her portrait, which hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The Flaying of Marsyas has “something to do with human life and all its ambiguities and all its horrors and terrors and misery,” she told the BBC, “and at the same time there’s something beautiful, the picture is beautiful, and something also to do with the entry of the spiritual into the human situation and the closeness of the gods … I regard Dionysus in a sense as a part of Apollo’s mind … and want to exalt Apollo as a god who is a terrible god, but also a great artist and thinker and a great source of life.” Read More »

Mental Vacation

April 17, 2015 | by

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Photo: Olivia Alcock

Early in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, the narrator, Charles Arrowby, explains why he never learned to drive and prefers to be a passenger. “Why keep bitches and bark yourself?” he asks, with impeachable logic. 

In the course of the novel, his veneer of self-assurance crumbles. Arrowby discovers the limits of control, even in isolation. But he also begins to see the lengths we go to in seeking that most elusive pleasure: an escape from ourselves.

For the overthinkers of the world, there’s maybe no greater luxury than shutting off your mind. It happens so rarely that you tend to notice it, if you notice it at all, more as a state of absence than anything else. It can happen during a movie, or listening to music, or, perhaps, in the presence of a great cook. And most especially when reading. Read More »

John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by

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John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Algiers, Aliens, Adulthood

July 25, 2014 | by

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George Saunders talks to an alien. Detail from an illustration by Thomas Allen, in O, the Oprah Magazine.

I went on vacation planning to read Tristram Shandyat last. Instead I read Frank Kermode on “Modernisms,” most of The Rise of the Novel (including the chapter on Tristram Shandy), and half the Selected Poems of Howard Moss. Total reading time: not much. But it was choice. Then I got home and found The New Yorker in my mailbox. Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” is the best fiction debut they’ve published in years. The story belongs to an ancient genre: young, rich people hole up in a country house to avoid the plague. In this case, the country house is a rental in Palm Springs, the plague is adulthood, and the hosts are a Hollywood couple about to start fertility treatments, hoping to get their ya-yas out in a mindful, caring way. Jackson knows his antecedents. He has metabolized Ben Lerner and David Foster Wallace. He can throw in a blank verse, like Melville, to heighten a scene. He even steals, without attribution, from Kenny Rogers. I read “Wagner in the Desert” my first night back, fell asleep, and dreamed I was in the story (and also back in elementary school, getting a lesson in the story) then woke up and read it again, with no diminution of enjoyment. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s very smart account of how reporting on the Middle East cured him of political romanticism. I suspect he’s not alone in this experience: “When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views.” My favorite parts are Shatz’s trips to Algiers—“a city I knew mostly from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film”—and his interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a sobering essay, and a timely one for this low point (after a very high one) in the history of the region. —Robyn Creswell

In this month’s O, The Oprah Magazine, George Saunders explains to a space alien what it means to be human. His explanation takes the form of a series of short-story recommendations, of course. Drawing on diverse selections from Chekhov to Hemingway to Lahiri, he covers the basics of love, loneliness, greed, kindness, death, and empathy. The essay’s a gem, a genuine love letter to reading as a noble pursuit. Saunders says it best: “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one’s car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you’re going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don’t think badly of you. I don’t think there’s a short story about that yet.” —Chantal McStay

Another thing I did on vacation was see The Shining for the first time in a couple of decades. This, unfortunately, was the director’s cut, in which Jack Nicholson has several long, boring conversations with ghosts. But even the scary parts weren’t scary anymore. To hear J. D. Daniels tell it in the new issue of Flaunt, I’d rather have seen the documentary Room 237—at least, if I got to see it with J. D. Daniels: “Room 237 is about unhinged Stanley Kubrick fanatics … Each of them thinks The Shining is a coded message. One participant believes The Shining is Kubrick’s confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing. Have you seen The Shining? It’s about an axe murderer. It’s about 145 minutes long.” —L.S.
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