Sunday, June 26, 2016

A text for Czelaw Milosz

After a recent trip ... I had been thinking once again about this poem I wrote several years ago after the death of the great poet C. Milosz. I thought I might even send it out into the world. Here it is:

A text for Czelaw Milosz

I find these new words for you,
my friend from a distant country,
In those things you'd seen I found there were enough echoes
  for my own times,
those building which burned for days,
that country where every line of sight intersected a field,
and finally those new cities which one could not walk out of,
girdled by roads and motorways,
a few hundred years of history burned deep into the ground.
But that was before we'd met, that would come later.
There was first another journey to make across desert and plain,
towards the mountain -- for there was only one.
A strange place, the summit rounded, a grassy knoll,
no trees, no wind, a silence absolute,
something I'd never  experienced before.
Standing in the driveway there I could hear the blood in my own ears.
Beneath me the long low plains where there'd once been an ocean,
Empty now right to the horizon.
How to survive this, this silence and solitude?
You spoke to me, although I had not been expecting it.
I wrote your words down, I stored them in the heart of a computer
fifty kilometers distant.
I sent them away from me by microwaves and fibre optic cable,
but kept them with me.
I commited them to memory.
I sensed there was a future and a past here,
yet to unfold.

There were more voyages.
You were with me that night in Esalen,
the waves of the pacific crashing against the darkened shoreline far
my body suspended in the heated waters,
impossibly separate.
For an instant,
a fleeting thought told me what was important and what mattered,
and what did not.

And still the ground unrolled beneath my feet,
latitude clicking back towards zero.
I stood in streets with sea as an end to them,
my shadow straight and inky black beneath my feet.
Forever trying to understand when it was that your verse met this reality,
This glittering sea before my eyes.

Then this last city, perhaps the most dangerous:
An intricate hypnotic web of streets,
Ruthlessly fractured to follow the dictates of science and art,
Lines of heaven drawn to the earth.
And suddenly I found myself there at the origin,
the zero-point,
It all seemed so true,
in a way other cities could never be true.
Perfection had somehow been granted to this corner of the world.
And beyond this centre,
the Universe faded away,
greyed out,
became unreal.
Voyages were unecessary:
After all, the city was all that existed.

In this sleep, from this distance,
I read your words again,
I layered your verse onto the buildings and streets around me,
And through them,
Walls and and buildings became transparent,
The city shrank, the world returned.

How does this end?
The traveller, perhaps, may not return to his point of origin.
There are lines which are only that, lines, which do not connect.
And I am in the present, and the past is the past.
I am underground, and far above I see the small disk of sky,
an undiscovered blue planet.
The roads and lines radiate outwards around me.
A parallel universe to the streets and cafes above.
I hestiate, of course.
At the exit, who knows?
But in my mind there is the amulet of your verse.
I start walking.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

"Virage analogique"

Here I am again, after six months. It was interesting to read the post below once again last night. You see, a weird thing happened between here and there. A few days after I wrote this blog post, I went to a shop here in the 14th in Paris and bought a roll of HP5+, a black and white film produced by Ilford camera. I put it in inside an old camera I still had here in a box, and started to take pictures. I was curious to see how it would turn out.

Well, now on the first week of January, I have filled more than 50 rolls of film with images. As well as the Pentax, I tried an Olympus XA rangefinder, and then in June I bought a Leica M6. Mostly because I was frustrated by the lack of control on the Olympus - developing and scanning photographs is a lot of work and it's frustrating when something doesn't turn out right and it was the camera's fault. Anyway, at least with the Leica if it doesn't work out, it is always your fault, and you can improve and learn how to do it better next time. So it maybe it is a "virage analogique" but for me it is now a straight road, like the one below I took during a recent trip to Spain:

I'm reminded of the blog post I wrote a few years about the Amazon Kindle and paper books, and Victor Hugo's Ceci tuera cela. Except in this case, it would be a film camera on the left and a digital camera on the right. But I think in this case it is worse, because film photography and digital photography are completely different. In the case of books, one would hope, the words are the same in both cases. But that is a reflection for another time.

Anyway, I don't want this blog to become devoted to photography (sighs of relief from the occasional one or two people still reading). I wrote my up my experience on a lengthy text which will appear on a certain photography-related site sometime soon. I have also committed myself to take at least one roll of film on the M6 with a 50mm lens per week. That experience you can follow over at 52rolls, and my posts will be here: . In the mean-time I will try to write at least one post per month over here. At least.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Making things and finding out about things

The last few months I've devoted a lot of my energies, outside of work, to photography. That is probably why the number of blog posts have declined. I spend a lot of time looking when I am out walking around Paris, and I spend a fair amount of time back here in the apartment looking at these images I have captured. I bought a fair amount of photography books too - there is a big pile of them here in the living room, and I don't know what to do with them all. Our shelves are already full and our Parisian apartment is, as you can imagine, not too large. There is: The Magnum contact prints (an enormous book), the retrospective on Henri Cartier Bresson from the Bibliotheque Nationale around ten years ago (which seemed a better book to me that the one from recent retrospective at Beabourg, although I can't comment on the shows as I missed them both), Robert Frank's The Americans, three Saul Leiter books (Recent Color and the two books about his black and white photographs), a book of the recent Harry Gruyaert expo at the Musee Europeén de la photographie, a small book about Walker Evans, and a Taschen History of Photography of the 20th century. All these books I bought in the last twelve months!

What is so interesting about these texts is that they all show the different ways there are of seeing the world. I do have to write something about these photographers, at least about Gruyaert, who is less discussed on the internet than the others. These books are inspirational. It is certainly easier to find great images here than trudging through Flickr (although there are some great images in there, you just need to know where to look)

But of course there is also the act of taking photographs itself. Now, as I said last summer, I have been taking photographs with digital cameras at least since 2003, and with analogue cameras before that (although not so often it has to be admitted). But I think I really didn't think, or didn't think too hard about what the photograph I was taking actually was, until last summer - they were snapshots. That at least has changed, I am thinking more. I am consciously trying to select individual photographs to put on Flickr, after some mucking around in Lightroom (I am not saying Flickr is the best place to put photographs, but the act of making them publicly visible makes you think more.) Being criticial, I don't think that I am yet able to really do colour photography, or at least I am going back to looking at most things in black and white. The wonderful thing is that in all these photographs, there are one or two good photographs. That creates a special feeling - to have created some object, some thing, which didn't exist before. I have to say, through photography, I never really felt that way before. It is the same feeling when you write a text. You made something exist which didn't exist before, and as well as that, sometimes, it is something which you don't feel terrible about having created (yes, I know).

Yes, artists writers and painters must know all about this. But remember I am a scientist. And you know the funny thing? It seems to me that the act of creation alone isn't enough. There is also stuff to be found out. There is knowledge to be gained. At the same time, science without creation seems to me to be sterile. A lot of the science that we have to do these days seems to be like that. Gone, of course, are the days when one great idea or one fantastic thought could change things. We are very much in the process of the incremental addition of knowledge (which I admit even Newton noticed). Because so much knowledge already exists, and because our picture of the Universe is already so detailed, it requires very extensive hardware and careful planning to make significant advances. Work takes place in vast highly-rational systems which punish deviation, and so they should because otherwise the work will not get done. What the crazy people who write letters to astronomers don't realise is that not only should their theory explain (say) Dark Matter (a favourite) but it must also explain all the previous observations made up until then. That is a tall order, and that requires all those sattellites and telescopes and computers -- which incidentally we get almost for free. They are the byproducts of our civilisation which is driven by other imperatives than the pure search for knowledge.

What is the conclusion? Well, one is easier than the other; there is a place for both; and science is hard.


Monday, December 22, 2014

"Calvary", a film by John Michael Mc Donagh

When I heard that Brendan Gleeson was starring in "Calvary" new film about an Irish priest from John Michael Mc Donagh my first reaction is surely this will be a comedy. After all, Gleeson was excellent in The Guard (McDonagh's previous film), a dark farce about a racist policeman combatting drug smugglers in the wilds of Ireland. It's hard to imagine a film set in Ireland about priests without thinking of the popular television comedy series Father Ted. However, after the numerous child abuse scandals in Ireland in recent years, it is hard to imagine anyone making any more comedies about priests in Ireland.

But "Calvary" asks this question: after all these scandals and the general drift of Ireland towards atheism and a downright distaste of the church, priests and organised religion, what must it like to be a good priest? And it addresses this question in a way which is both funny, moving and thought-provoking.

The film starts with a brilliant set-up: in the confessional, a parishioner tells our priest, Father James, that he was abused in childhood by the clergy during many long years. He wants revenge, but all the perpetrators are dead. In any case, it would be so much more shocking, the man reasons, to kill a good priest rather than a bad one. So he announces that in one weeks' time, on the beach, he will kill Father James. The remainder of the film chronicles the last seven days of Father James' life.

The film is set in Sligo, under the shadow of Ben Bulben, the famous mountain overlooking the graveyard where Yeats is buried. Ben Bulben is a curious flat-topped rocky outcropping that popped from the ground after the glaciers retreated. It is present in many scenes, it is there in the corner of the image, surrounded by flat green fields and rolling seas. Against this canvas, Father James meets a series of characters from the small village where he lives. None of them have much respect for him, or, more precisely, the institution he represents. Nevertheless, he wears his black soutane throughout almost all of the film and is never ashamed of it. How to be a priest in these times? Each person in the village has their own particular reason to dislike the church, and at times the conversations edge towards cliche. All the archetypes are there: the rich banker, the skeptical doctor, the hedonist, the American writer living on his island, the black guy (played with cool grace by Jarmusch favourite Isaach de Bankolé). Father James tries to help these people, or at least listen to them. There is also abundant amounts of the black humour that Ireland is renowned for.

Father James keeps his appointment on the beach on Sunday morning. The day before, he considers leaving, going to Dublin, but at the airport he meets the only person in the film who has any religious instincts: a French woman who has lost her husband in a car accident. She is accompanying her husband's body back to Italy. It is Saturday evening. In next scene, Father James is at home in bed and it is Sunday morning. He has decided, instead, to face his fate.

It is hard to imagine a film which could make people admit to having positive thoughts about organised religion and the church in Ireland. But Calvary succeeds in doing this. Father James' character is an imperfect one. He likes a drink, he is not a saintly man. His act is not a grand thing, it is done casually: In Ireland we like understatement. Finally, at the end, he meets his destiny with stoicism and grace.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Imagine future scholars attempting to reconstruct the history of the human race based only on the works of American writer T. Pynchon. OK, so we can travel in time, but only if we have enough electricity. And there really is spooky action at a distance, and it really is spooky. There are countless conspiracies, of course, otherwise nothing would ever get done, right? Moreover, in case you are wondering, the Earth is hollow, and if you live near Durham, England, you had better watch out for that big worm recently spotted in the neighbourhood. So I was very interested to read what Pynchon would have to say about the 11th of September, 2001, which is one of the subjects of his new book, Bleeding Edge.

Thomas Pynchon and the Lambton Worm

To go back: when I was at University in Manchester there was a tiny second-hand bookshop that I liked to go to. The owner was a friendly fellow, and I am sure I discovered Pynchon’s work browsing his shelves. After a while I asked him to look out for a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon's most famous book, and indeed it eventually showed up. I was lucky enough to get the big first-edition UK paperback, with nice paper and pages sewn together. In the inside back cover there were handwritten addresses of two people in Quebec with the words “good luck” written in big block letters at the bottom. I never did write to them, but I did finish the book, so maybe it helped. A decade or so later, while I was living in Durham, Mason and Dixon came out and my friend Stephen B. and I were very excited— not only was the reclusive Mr. Pynchon still writing, but he was writing books about places we lived in, because Jeremiah Dixon was actually from Bishop Auckland, only a short distance from Durham. Perhaps, Stephen wondered, Pynchon had actually been to Durham to research his book? Maybe we had walked next to him in Durham’s narrow streets, but not actually recognised him because, well, nobody actually knows what Pynchon looks like. Reading the book in my little room at Hallgarth street I was astonished by the hyper-realistic obscure details he included, and how much it felt to me like Durham and the north-east of England. That kind of weird foggy unreal feeling provoked by a combination of not enough light and the presence of very large and very old buildings extremely nearby.

When I first read Pynchon he was writing about things that I had no personal experience of, except indirectly (I have never seen the Lambton Worm but I knew where it lives). But Bleeding Edge concerns events which occurred in my lifetime: the days and weeks before and after the 11th of September 2001. Of course if you are expecting drama and catastrophe that is not what is in the book: Pynchon’s characters experience the day’s terrible events from a distance, they see it for the most part on TV like the rest of us, downtown and uptown are are not so close after all. No, the drama of the thing is not what interests Pynchon, what interests him is of course the hidden connections, the conspiracies.

Bleeding edges and shaggy dog stories

The principal character in his book is a semi-retired fraud investigator who gets called in to investigate the accounts of a Silicon Alley start-up which are showing more than one or two in logical inconsistencies. The trail of numbers leads to … what exactly? It’s never completely clear. Perhaps that money is being directed into financing some flying lessons for budding middle-eastern pilots who only want to take off and fly but never to land? Or buy some surface-to-air missiles? The most fascinating aspect of the book is Pynchon’s depiction of turn-of-the-last-century computer culture. Mostly in New York, so yes, big switch for Pynchon who has set most of his previous books in California. Here, he is fascinated by the “deep web”, that layer of the internet which is invisible either to search engines or to anyone with a “normal” web browser. This “deep web” functions as a kind of quantum-mechanical set of hidden variables which explain how everything links up with everything else, long-standing Pynchonian concerns. What’s also kind of weird and fascinating about it is how he makes the past sound like the future, because after all a decade-and-a-half is a very long time in information technology. In the meantime there have been quite a few exponential doublings in transistor densities.

Like his previous book Inherent Vice it is all a bit of a shaggy dog story, and, even better this time there is a real shaggy and dog story — a story about Shaggy and Scooby Doo, which ends in a terrible pun. The book is full of gags and songs, a lot of them demanding a quite profound knowledge of the subculture he’s parodying, and at the same time there is a non-negligible undercurrent of paranoia and fear. Period artefacts (computers and programming culture) are rendered accurately and in detail.

What's new?

So, long-time Pynchon fans might ask, what’s new here? Well, not fundamentally a whole lot. What is wonderful about the book is its crazy picture of America at the start of the 21st century. Pynchon leans lightly on his subject material but there no doubt how serious the undercurrents are. Small invisible perturbations provoke world-changing events, and, what’s worse, often without any causal relationship. Subcultures hiding from the mainstream world will be suppressed by “state actors”, unless they can completely vanish. And a lot of takeaway food will be consumed.

At the end of the book, there is no resolution of all matters brought up in the previous pages, because, hey, this the real world, right?