Dear Jim . . . (#23) Re: Pregnant in the Head-Brain

BY JON PILL

Dear Jim,

Fertilisation of the womb requires that sperm are deposited high in the vagina of a woman close to the time of ovulation, says my university physiology textbook. You did ask about the earliest point of gestation right?

Oh, reread your letter. That makes more sense.

Gestation as metaphor for art has a heavy pedigree. I’ve just been corralling the Oxen of the Sun in Ulysses for the second time and apart from the fact that reading that section feels like a labour of a different sort, it also gives us the subtle imagery of Joyce’s avatar Stephen spouting off about exactly this gestatory idea of art, while an actual parturient shits out a wee bairn (or whatever the Guinness-swillers call them) on the upstairs landing.

You are more aware of these things that I am, but presumably the whole thing goes back at least to Plato’s apology for pederasty in The Symposium – in which ideas are treated as spermatozoa and young minds as vagina’s into which the semen of wisdom is to be deposited. Less is said about exactly where the beloved’s literal deposits are going, but that may have just been prudishness on the part of the translator.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [… … …] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

I think gestation is a rather grandiloquent word for what art is and does (imagine a carpenter discussing the ‘gestation’ of your dining table). I rarely go in with as clear a sense as you do when putting together a story; or at least am unclear in a different way (no musical touchstones or trees in the mist). Most often I have an idea or a voice or a form I want to play with and I just start a game. The mucking about continues until there’s enough of a sense of what can be done with it all. Then the mucking about becomes mucking in as I get a sense of direction. Most often this point comes when I know how the whole thing will end.

To be more specific I might have to look at a given story. The story that has left the clearest tracks in the snow is probably one called Switches. That story came from my reading a story on the New Scientist website about Boltzmann brains* (with one of the greatest headlines ever). As I began to write a stream of consciousness for one of these things from the point of it coming into existence.

It ran out of steam and I needed a new thread, and I was reminded of two things: I had also previously read about the China brain on Wikipedia and the two ideas bonded. The third part of the story came from a Brian Greene book on types of multiverses in a chapter of which he describes the universes we might simulate in a computer.

A little more batting around and I had my format, plot and ending. The rest is history (or will be when I can find a damn place to publish it) as I sat down to hammer out Switches.

He who sees everything and founded the land, who knows (everything) and is wise in everything.

But you can probably go further back on that story. Those two brains and a universe were harvested as story materiel because of the types of things I like to to write about. For whatever reason, non-human consciousnesses stimulate my creative prostate, I can’t get enough of them. The great apes, GM-animals, insect swarms, computers, human hive-minds, clockwork synapses, Boltzmann brains its all fabulous grist.

To keep following the tracks of the gestating story-fetus: some of that interest can be traced back to my teenage reading of Michael Crichton books; Prey and The Terminal Man in particular – maybe also Congo. They set me up to think of a person’s mind as mechanical and mechanical-minds as potentially persons. (In that vein I recently read the excellent Blindsight by Peter Watts – thanks to Laura Heron for putting me onto that – which can be read for free here).

Probably some of Dan Dennett’s TED talks, Richard Dawkin’s science books, and my various readings in psychology during A-level. All these things till furrows into the folds of grey matter, thickening the womb lining in preparation for the fertilised zygote which then metamorphoses into words on the page.

I want to speak of bodies, changed into new forms.

As well as the plottier ideas: formal conceits, voices and structures also come from external fertilisation followed by manipulation once they have accreted onto the original play-draft.

In Switches, the rhythms of the voices refer back to my other teenage obsessions: Fight Club and American Psycho, both of which have a particular kind of narrator, flat of affect and simple and direct in his sentences. Palahniuk also does a line in line-repetition that I have stolen and used in almost everything I’ve ever written.

Switches is particular marked by repetitions because of the voice but as well as stealing other people’s voices and moulding them into something new, there is also the more direct theft from Hitchhikers of the mind suddenly brought into being by chance and then being destroyed by its not naturally tenable position in the galaxy. The monologue of my Boltzmann brain is – ahem – very like the whale’s. Which is another case of  something being stolen and then redrawn in a fun-house mirror.

The end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I feel like learning something new next week. Since you’re doing sondage on a number of topics lately, I’d like a letter on how you research for your fiction and how much getting the facts right matters to you.

Yours originally,

Jon

P.S. These are theoretical consciousnesses that must arise in an infinite universe in which quantum fluctuations are constantly producing matter at random in the void of space.

P.P.S. This is a theoretical brain made up by the population of China who are given walkie talkies to communicate with each other and specific instructions which, if followed, will mean they communicate with their compatriots the same way as a given neurone in a human brain. The idea is that this brain of people would be just as conscious as any of the brains in the humans that make the China brain up.

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Dear Jon . . . (#22) Re: The Lowest Hottest Place on Earth

BY JON PILL

EXT. DESERT – NIGHT

A figure stands in the desert, silhouetted against a bad moon, which rises from between two plateaus leaving a dark valley in which the figure is trapped.

MEDIUM SHOT – The figure, shot from behind, still in silhouette, standing in the middle of the prickly pears which line the valley. The night is so hot that we can see vast Fata Morgana’s forming over the blurred horizon where the moonlit soil touches the deep-sea darkness of the sky.

The figure turns and we can see it is you. But you have no eyes.

There are no eyes here.

BLETTER (v.o.)

This is the other extreme, says the voiceover. The shot travels low over vivid green pools crowded with strange almost coral-like formations. The shores of the pools are white, crystalline. Only the blue sky seems to confirm or suggest that this isn’t some other planet.

The shot does no such thing, ignoring the voice over and dollying in on you. Suddenly you are lit by a flickering glow.

You stare about the scene walleyed – you have eyes now, loads of them, at least fifty, a wall of wall-eyed eyes, there are loads of eyes here – and confused.

YOUR FACE

Where is this bletter speaking from?

The camera moves in close on the back of your head. We hear a CRACKLING fire from behind us on the surround sound.

BLETTER (v.o.)

The place, as the voiceover continues to say, is the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia – one of the lowest and hottest places on planet Earth. The footage, from Planet Earth, that flagship BBC programme of the 2000s. The voiceover, of course, David Attenborough.

This place patently is not. You spin around and are confronted with the lie. We see the look of anger on your face before we CUT TO:

POV – Your-eye view, just one of them there are so many now that this eye can see other eyes falling off and rolling away. It can also see a BURNING BUSH, 26, a multi-foliate rose of the desert. Bush speaks not with the voice of David Attenborough, but with the monstrous voice of the Bletter.

BLETTER/BUSH (v.o.)

For many people, perhaps particularly for those of our generation, this was one of those TV that sticks in the head, that stays with you…’

The flames freeze. The crackling stops. There is a RECORD SCRATCH and a sudden burst of light as the celluloid in the projector burns up. Then there is just the clatter of the maltese cross and sprockets, and the harsh yellow light on the screen.

TITLE CARD: CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE BLETTER.

FADE TO BLACK.

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Dear Jim… (#21) Re: On Space

BY JON PILL

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” – G. H. Hardy

Dear Jim,

So at the end of your letter on time you asked for a letter about space. Conveniently, space – in its broadest sense – is what Measurement by Paul Lockhart is about. I will come back to that. First allow me a series of digressions.

(The Greeks treated all of mathematics spatially. Three was a line three times longer than a line of length one. To add you put the lines end to end, to subtract you cut away a stick of the relevant length. They did all their maths in this way, shapes were vital.)

As may have come up in these letters before: I was a religious kid. I don’t think that my dislike of mathematics has featured; so cliff notes are that I found maths to be too algorithmic and formulaic – in all of the ways – to be of interest at school. Another thing unlikely to have come up is that I find the song Amazing Grace very sad, and somewhat discomforting, especially the final verse.

Consider all this to be foreshadowing.

(Geometry is ye olde Greeke for measuring the Earth. Plato’s Acadamy had a sign behind the bar that read ‘Let No One* Ignorant of Geometry Enter’, but in ye olde Greeke.)

When I was but knee high to a woodlouse I had the disconcerting feeling of coming upon infinity in a deeply disturbing way. I was small and so this memory is probably a composite of several moments but my brain has been somewhat fried by my travels in time (and indeed space, especially the space enclosed by the pint glass). The way I remember it is as a conversation with my mother in church regarding Heaven and the unending nature of it. What started as an innocent question ended in tears as my mother explained that there was no end, that every day would be followed by another; that at the edge of space there would have to be something else beyond, some sort of nothingness.

(They also believed the universe was infinite in all directions, and that ideas existed in a very real but very abstract way. They also believed that their complex and varied beliefs spanning several centuries and most of the Eastern Mediterranean would be over simplified and bled of all nuance so I could make word count.)

The result was physical discomfort.

(In their maths however, they avoided infinity. Largely thanks to the confusions introduced by Zeno and his tortoises. They also didn’t have a numeral for zero. No one did until the Indian’s started using it. Nothing and infinity are tied up by the idea of the infinitesimal – a fragment that takes up no space but has a value. Something we only really started to get to grips with in Newton / Leibniz’ work.)

I sympathise. The idea that like that extra day after infinite others, there was another mile of space after the infinite miles behind it. It was an emotion I haven’t really had about anything else. It was a real horror, but wasn’t fear. It wasn’t about scale or feeling small. It was about something more abstract. Something about existing in the infinite something about having something definite but completely unknowable.

(Of all the scientific disciples, I’ve been told that mathematicians are the most likely to be religious. This seems weird when their field is about such refined and precise logic which seems kind of incompatable with the non-rigourous thinking implied in the word ‘faith’.)

It hurt my gut, but not in the way sadness does. It was unpleasant, and I sat for a long time wanting to cry. Then I did cry for a bit. Then the whole congregation rose to sing Amazing Grace which ends with the verse:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright Shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.

This was all a bit much for me and I had to be taken outside.

(Then again, there is clearly something in the abstraction of the subject that overlaps with the spiritual. Especially in the Abrahamic tradition where God is not so much a personality as a concept.)

Anyways. I was reading Measurement. So the book is Lockhart’s way of teaching maths that isn’t everything that turned me off maths when I was at school. His approach is to teach methods of proof, then to lay down questions or problems that are to do with applying mathematical argument. There are no answers.

He urges the reader to treat maths as a creative endeavour. Find a proof, work on it, polish it like you would a poem. Make it shine. Then try and find a better one, or an alternative one.

The emphasis is on getting you to discover maths. You won’t be the first to prove there’s only so many platonic solids. But the discovery can be totally original to you. It is genuinely thrilling. This maths is out there, existent in a perfectly objective way. Nothing comes closer to Plato’s world of ideals than mathematics.

Some of it feels kind of arbitrary. It is logic so you take a bunch of assumptions and you run them as far as they will go, see what happens. It doesn’t matter how long your first stick is, as long as you can work out how long it is compared to something else.

But somehow it produces specificity. (Pi emerges, e emerges, sine and tangents, the primes.) These things have a realer than real existence. They are necessarily true. They are capital-T Truth. And that is easy enough to understand, but understanding is not feeling and when I finished Measurement I got a hint why so many mathematicians are religious.

In his discussion of (how e emerges), I started to have that infinity feels again. The discomfort. Here was a glimpse of the sun, of real objects, after watching the procession of shadows on the wall. It was also the closest thing I’ve had to a genuine religious experience since being slain in the spirit as a kid.

It was – appropriately – (transcendent).

I didn’t cry this time. Much. But I would still recommend the book.

This has all got rather highfalutin, why don’t you do something about something low next week: Low-life, low-brow, low-culture, low-lands – Whatever, I leave it up to you.

Yours finitely,

(Jon)

P.S. *’No one is not one word… Don’t quote me on that.‘ – J. S. Loveard

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February Reading Round-Up

BY JON PILL

I started the month by finally sending Underworld to the underworld. It is probably one of the easiest difficult books I’ve ever read. DeLillo manages to be stylish and lyrical and funny without making you have to work at reading his prose. He makes it look easy. The bastard. Underworld was great.

I like to read books about writing and the rather whiny (and in places kind of creepy-nerdy) Vita Nuova by Dante filled that slot this month. The translation I read seemed to have sapped all the joy from the verse. Not the best read. But interesting as a historical document. Also in the books about books camp was Kingsley Amis’ New Maps Of Hell: A Survey Of Science Fiction his review of the state of sci-fi back in the fifties. Interesting to see where the medium has changed, and where the perception has not.

For non-fiction I finished Measurement this month. One of the most mind-expanding books I’ve read in a long time. This is a maths professor’s successful attempt to make maths interesting. He teaches you how to create proofs then sets you off to do them yourself. I had the closest thing to a religious experience reading this book.

Necronomicon was the somewhat fraudulent audiobook which though marketed as being the unabridged audiobook of the collection of the same name, is in fact heavily abridged and according to the editor’s website, not affiliated with the lovely leather-bound edition he curated. Good, if formulaic, creepy stuff.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World’s less predictive and interesting cousin, as well. Orwell’s vision of the power growing from language has suddenly become prescient thanks to Kellyanne Conway. Double plus good read apart from the documentary stuff.

I also read the two plays of ol’ Bill’s that I’ve seen the most after Lear: Hamlet (great) and Twelfth Night (alright).

Total: 9 books.

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Dear Jon . . . (#20) Re: Reading, Time and Tide

BY JON PILL

It was somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit light headed, maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar and all around us the sky was full of bletters reading:

“Dear Jon,

It’s true, I talk a lot about re-reading. One of the reasons I prefer to buy a book than take it out from a library is because the thought occurs that I might want to re-read such a such a book. But it is more talk than action. I very rarely re-read books. This truth is documented. Records – those held in the Archives, walled up in a secret underground facility near Ultima Thule – suggest that the last book I actually re-read was Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc(1968) in April 2015. So not recently. Because, no, apparently 2015 isn’t recent anymore. Time flies…”

Click here for the rest.

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Reading Roundup

BY JON PILL

I’ve rather fallen behind in my monthly reading book review posts. So here’s a quick update.

I’m tracking my reading a little closer over on GoodReads. Which is where I have lifted most of the stuff below. For the other month’s you’ll just have to make do with a simple list and a yes/no/maybe answer to the question ‘Would I recommend?’:

November Reading:

  • Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner. Maybe.
  • A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin. Yes to fans.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir. Yes.
  • The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Maybe but not before his more important works.

December Reading

  • The Hustler by Walter Tevis. Yes but only after seeing the movie.
  • Classics: A Very Short Introduction by Mary Beard and John Henderson. Yes, highly.
  • Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kelly Catriona. No.
  • Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction by John Phillips. Maybe, if you are interested in hearing the rosiest possible case for the Marquis.
  • History: A Very Short Introduction by John H. Arnold. Yes.

January Reading

I got one big classic off my plate by finishing listening to the Big Read audiobook of (1) Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.

I also listened to Jezza Irons reading Eliot (who is the bestest) on the BBC, since he read several complete collections I can count the following books as read via my earholes:
(2) Prufrock and Other Observations
(3) Poems
(4) Four Quartets

For entertainment I read Peter Watts existentially challenging hard sci-fi novel (5) Blindsight which was fun and full of interesting non-fiction ideas, whereas (6) Geography: A Very Short Introduction – which is actual non-fiction – did not.

The only other proper classic I’ve got through this month was the rather uninteresting (7) Theogony/Works and Days by Hesiod, the far less interesting or fun coeval of Homer.

Further Reading

Since 2016 came and went with most of my reading goals incomplete. Other than reading a decent 99 books (well over my goal of 82), and though I would normally aim one higher for the following year I don’t feel that’s realistic.
2016 was an ideal year from a reading standpoint, and this year reading is going to have to take a back seat to writing goals so, although I will nominally be aiming for 100, I’ll be happy if I get 60ish.
I want to make sure I read more non-fiction, especially science. I’ve missed that from my reading over the last year or so. I’ll aim for twelve substantial non-fiction texts and see how many insubstantial ones I can fit in around that.
I’m also going to continue with my overview of the Classics with a focus on the British novel. I still have these books to go from my original list.

I also have a list of  books I started ages ago and never finished. I’d like to cross some of them off as well. They are:

The highest priority list I am working on is research for the novel I am working on. These include books that are stylistically similar to my novel, deal with similar themes, have historical information in them that I need, or which I think will be otherwise helpful to my thinking about the novel I am working on.

I’ve trimmed the list a little from last year, there were a few that just didn’t feel as necessary as they did when I first made this list and as with the other lists have knocked off those I finished in 2016. I’ve also added The Sacred Willow, another Xmas gift:

I also want to read the following Shakespeare works. Although I have seen or listened to performances of these nine plays, I haven’t actually read them. So for completion’s sake, I’m gonna do that this year. Then I have read the lot.

 

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Dear Jim (#19) Re: Turning Heads and Changing Minds

BY JON PILL

exorcist

I understand that people think of “The Exorcist” as a horror film, I totally get it. You don’t have to worry about it, it’s only a horror film. But I think it deals with issues far more profound than what you find in the average horror film. To be frank with you, [writer] Bill Blatty and I never set out to make a horror film. The idea never crossed our minds.’ – William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist

Dear Jim,

Advocate for something, you said. Sell you something. You don’t need to ask me twice.

I don’t know if I can necessarily swing your opinion on The Exorcist. You’ve seen it, and weren’t hugely convinced of its myriad qualities. But it is my favourite film. Perhaps at the very least, I can help you understand why I love it, even if if I can’t be categorical that you should.

But I can say I don’t think you should just be scared or disgusted or any of the visceral stuff that makes The Exorcist so entertaining. I want to talk about the other stuff that makes it moving and thought provoking. It is proper art, serious art. With serious intention behind it.

I watched it for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen, having been raised in a house where we were never allowed to watch a film rated higher than our age. I had my DVDs of American History X, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs confiscated, in the case of American History X I don’t think I ever got that one back. So watching The Exorcist was a taboo experience from the get go, ramped up by a genuine belief in the voodoo of the Church and its pitchfork-tailed opposite down below.

It was scary and disgusting and visceral, and also deeply uncomfortable: the blasphemy, the sordid sexual undertones, and the existential challenge of eternal damnation and priest without faith.

Demonic possession in broad daylight in an urban street felt close and real in a way a backwoods cabin doesn’t. Isolated characters are easy to see as vulnerable, easy to root for, but when you step out of the cinema onto a crowded street the film evaporates. The Exorcist happens in Washington and the victims are surrounded by people. The movie follows you home.

When I rewatched it, older, wiser and more skeptical of religion, I was struck by the diagnostics of the film. The House-like elimination of the alternatives and the fact that the Priest – himself struggling with his faith – is only called in as a form of hypnotic suggestion. The reading that suggests that it all might just be hysteria on the part of Regan and her mother seemed to live alongside the more straightforward superstition of the ‘real’ possession. I think one of the great things about the film is that it maintains ambiguities in just the right places to allow you cognitive dissonance. You can believe in the pit and in medicine, can fear God and fear madness, at the same time as you watch.

Around this time I also found a video* which makes the case for an undercurrent of sexual abuse that lends the film a different sort of dramatic intensity and a new different sort of discomfort.

New things occur to me each time I watch it. So much of the story telling happens indirectly, Regan’s desecration of the church – an act that could just be an atmospheric coincidence or sign of the evil spreading – is confirmed not by a line, but by drawing attention to Regan’s clay animals the design of which mirror the additions made to the Virgin Mary’s statue. The infamous masturbatory scene, is prefaced by the Mother removing the crucifix from the room, making its return all the more sinister. The whole film is full of this sort of detail.

The more I watch it the more I appreciate the technique of it. The special effects (you can see their breath in those final scenes because the set was an icebox), the make-up on Regan, the performances, and above all the sound design. My favourite piece of cinema is the first ten minute of this film, the almost wordless sequence with the ominous stopping of the clock, the one eyed man, the creepy old crone, and then the drive out to the statue of Pazuzu and the shot of man opposed with the statue as the wind howls and the dogs bark and fight.

It’s exciting, and unsettling and sets the scene perfectly for the transition to that chilly room on the first floor with the noises in the roof, and moving furniture, where something very old and evil waits.

A lot of what made me fall in love with this movie comes out in the re-watching. You’ve been talking about going back to re-read old books. That can be your topic for next time.

Yours faithfully,
Jon

P.S. It was while ranting about how great The Exorcist is to a friend that I was first put on to the BBC’s Flagship Wittertainment. Which seems as good a reason as any to say ‘Hello, to Jason Isaacs.’

P.P.S. * Watch the revamped version of that video here.

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