Tag Archives: Art

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


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,


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 Jim… (#21) Re: On Space


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,


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

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Dear Jon (#18) Re: This Is Not For You


I am in a strange street, empty of people but full of voices. A light rain forms a mist into which the two ends of the street vanish. Neon signs hang and hum along with insect light-traps and one of them sparks as a moth meets its end.

The voices are under the street calling out a garbled message: ‘Dear Jon,’ they say. ‘Be gone buzz words. Buzz off buzz words. Bzzzzzzzt.

There is a pause and I step underneath a shop’s doorway to shake the earwigs from my cochlear canals they slither down a drain and the psychic audio bletter becomes clearer:

‘Let’s talk attitudes, because there’s another aspect to deal with. There’s one attitude which you talk about, I should read, listen to, look at x. One side of the groat there. The other side of the groat: but it’s not for me, it’s not for people like me, it’s for other people…’

The voice trails off. The sign above me reads: ‘CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST.’

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Dear Jim… (#17) Re: On Converting The Philistines


I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out…” – Jim

Dear Jim,

In your last letter you gave me the broadest of briefs. To throw out a few thoughts on changing one’s mind or – you said, as if the two things were obviously linked – ‘aesthetic education’. I’ll deal with the latter because although less interesting to me it won’t spiral into a ramble. A tight 500 is the goal. This bletter needs sending today and I left it all until the final countdown.

Cue music:


In terms of aesthetical edugogy, I think it’s a valuable thing for one to do to oneself. But I’d be tentative about getting super evangelical about it. While there are somewhat weak arguments about art engaged humans being better citizens, I think liking art is more of a self-help thing than a social responsibility. With that caveat in mind, here’s what I think.

The general goal of the court mandated aesthetic education, as put together by Minister for Art Appreciation for Jon Pill would be, I think, to get the student – i.e. me  – to think about art intentionally. I think this is what is meant by that buzz word ‘engage’.

The human brain can engage with art at all sorts of levels, but the zeroth level that we all do pretty instinctively will always be: Do I like it? And here is where it is easiest to stop. With the Yes/No answer.

I come from a family of readers, my Dad read to me before I could read and listening to him read remained a family activity, especially on holiday where The Hobbit and the Harry Potter saga often made short work of train journeys.

Reading for myself was encouraged and there would be a regular exchange of cheap second hand paperbacks between the various members of the family. Redwall and Alastair MacLean, Jack Higgins and The Phantom Tollbooth. Stuff like that.

So there were books. But there was also a general air of philistinism. The first question I am asked whenever I say I have read Classic Book X or Epic Poem Y to a family member is always: ‘But is it actually any good? Or is it just one of those books your supposed to read?’

The inherent assumption behind the word ‘good’ is that it be enjoyable*. There was no room for a book to be challenging, the unpleasant, the interesting, the beautiful, unless it came with a good plot. In a house full of Austen lovers, I am the only one who likes Emma [Edit: My Dad has corrected me on this. He also likes Emma. Like father, like son.]. People hate Emma because they dislike Emma. That’s was all it takes: an irritating character that rubbed you up the wrong way. Never mind that her irritating faults are the driving force of a series of engaging dramas, never mind the amusing ironies her faults breed, never mind the impressive skill involved in what is pretty much the invention of the close-third narrator.

That is a difficult attitude to shake. Because good = enjoyable is a massive barrier between art and artee. A key part of that aesthetic education is just shedding the idea that an immediate sense of pleasure is the only positive response to something.

So interrogating Do I like it? with intentionality would level one of converting the barbarians. Once you have your yes or no follow it up with: Why do I like/dislike it? What do I like about it? What is it making me feel? What thoughts is it giving me?

I never learned to ask these questions formally. It’s been a slow trial-and-error sort of thing mostly through talking about film with friends, and more recently through reading widely, going to galleries, watching plays. And I’m still not always great about thinking like this. But, you know, fail better and all that. #selfhelpisnotselflove.

There are, of course, a ton of other ways of engaging with art, but cultivating this kind of self-aware thoughtfulness is the basis for all the rest of it. The basis of a lot of living well. #unexaminedlives. We’re not talking about turning  into a – hold back the sick – literary theorists after all. Just helping them get a bit more out of swirls of paint or lines of ink.

What the next stage in an aesthetic education might look like I’ll leave to you, someone who has spent five years formally studying fiction-books, in your next bletter.

Yours appreciatively,


P.S. *This issue of enjoyment vs. other stuff, Greene’s entertainments versus novels, and genre versus literature is all something we’ll have to come back to some day. For now though, I will leave that can of worms on the shelf beside the baked beans and Spaghetti-Os.


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