Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On the books I kept



You shall know me by the books I kept.

I realise that it is a romantic and questionable notion, applying only to some people and in limited ways. But I live by the example of my parents, for whom books and reading were tools of emancipation. For my mother, who responded so well to the first books she encountered as a child that she was allowed to attend high school. Later, after the war, this enabled her to go to university in a big city, instead of staying and becoming a teacher in her rural community, as her parents had planned. And for my father, who had to leave school at fourteen to work full time in his family’s upholstery workshop, but who made up for his lack of formal education by reading widely and voraciously, including in the subjects of my mother’s long and laborious tertiary studies.

For a time, in fact, it was my father who did all the reading. My mother’s eyesight became quite poor as she embarked upon her final exams and her dissertation, just before I was born. Therefore he read the necessary textbooks to her, teaching himself a great deal in the process about Greek and medieval philosophy, as well as Roman history and the Latin language.

I grew up in a house full of books. They weren’t just any books – are they ever? – but rather a specific collection that mapped the history of my parents’ intellectual development and their relationship. I only became aware of this much later.

Growing up in that small apartment crammed with bookshelves, I developed the habit of reading anything that came to hand. For me, it was a perfectly natural thing to do, to read a Russian or French novel in translation simply because it was within reach, or had an attractive cover, even if it spoke of things I couldn’t really understand, or was full of names I couldn’t sound out.

Frequently a visitor would quip that we sure had a lot of books. Still, I  assumed everyone lived in a library like we did, even when we visited other houses and I saw that they didn’t.

Over time I built my own, considerably smaller library, which I largely dismantled before moving from Italy to New Zealand. But I didn’t pine too much for the loss, as I knew I would have time to build another. Gradually, however, I became aware of the problems my parents’ library would pose. After Dad died and Mum moved into a rest home back in the old village, things came to a head. How many books would she be allowed to take? The people at the home promised a couple of shelves in a communal area, and limited space in her room. This wasn’t an issue they had ever come across before – not in the place she had left seven decades earlier in no small part because it didn’t value education or cultivate curiosity for things beyond local knowledge.

After some negotiation, we settled on fifty books.

Fifty books. So few. I went up and down ladders, read out the titles to her. Almost every single one brought up a memory, some of them involving my father, or my sister, or an old friendship, or an exam. That library was, if not quite the story, at least a story of her life. We spent hours on this job on successive nights, neglecting others that might have seemed far more urgent in the short time allowed for packing up the apartment during my overseas visit.

The first selection was heartbreaking. Mum could barely let go of one book in ten out of the thousands she owned. But I understood that it was part of the process, a gradual coming to terms. We revised the list, once and then twice. Settled on what needed to go in that almost fateful box.

They are my books now. Mine and my sister’s. There was nothing we could do with the bulk of the library, no-one we could even donate it to; there is no longer a market in Italy for second-hand books that aren’t rare or antique. They are objects of no cultural or monetary worth. Most of them had to be destroyed.But I treasure the few I possess, as relics both of my early education and of the values and ideas that my parents shared and endeavoured to transmit to us.

***

You shall know me by the books I kept.

I know it is a false statement; there is so much it leaves unsaid and unquestioned. But while books are still material objects, as opposed to sequences of digital code, and while they occupy space in our homes and encumber our lives, I know it also contains a grain of truth. That we are in conversation with our books. That they help to define who we are, like other aspects of our taste and our style. Or like the people we love.




This was my column for this year’s Winter issue of Overland, which is having its subscription drive this week with daily prizes. Subscribe to Overland. Don’t do it to support a worthy publication and good writing, do it because it’s a great thing to get in the mail four times a year.

Also, in the latest issue I have a long piece on the invention of dynamite and the prehistory of the war on terror and it’s now online.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Inside the Personal Computer




The inside of a computer looks a bit like a city, its memory banks and I/O devices rising like buildings over the avenues of soldered circuits. But then so do modern cities resembles motherboards, especially at night, when the cars sparkle like point-to-point signal carriers travelling along the grid. It is a well-worn visual metaphor in films and advertising, suggesting that the nerve centres of business and finance have come to resemble the information infrastructure that sustains them. Besides, isn’t the city at the sharp edge of the late capitalist era above all a generator of symbols?

And yet this technology with which we are so intimate, and that more than any other since the invention of writing has extended us, remains mostly opaque to us. Why would anyone bother to learn what digital machines look like on the inside? What difference would it make, when the uses we make of them are so incommensurate with this trivial knowledge?


I like pop-up books, and early pop-up books about the inner workings of computers have become obsolete in an interesting way. They are the last thing we would think to use to demonstrate such knowledge nowadays. They are so prone to jamming or coming apart. They have none of the grace and smoothness that our devices aspire to.

The centre piece of Sharon Gallagher’s Inside the Personal Computer – An illustrated Introduction in 3 Dimensions (1984) is the machine itself, complete with keyboard and floppy disk drive.


If you push the disk inside its unit and lower the flap, a Roman blind-like mechanism changes the message on the screen from INSERT DISK AND CLOSE DOWN to HELLO: THIS BOOK EXPLAINS WHAT I AM AND HOW I WORK. BY THE END YOU’LL KNOW ME INSIDE OUT.

It’s a neat trick. But the book is at its best when it gets into the basics of how transistors work, or uses wheels to explain how to translate a number into binary code, or a typed character first into ASCII, then into its binary equivalent.



Or simply what happens when you type “M”.


There is the mechanical action that alienates us from the digital word. Writing technologized language but still allowed us to write in our own hand, whereas there is simply no way of typing gracefully. Any M is like any other M, and even if we choose a fancy font the translation from the essential M (ASCII code 77) to the fancy M happens inside the computer and in code. This is not a ‘bad thing’. It’s just the state of the tools of our culture, which require a different kind of practice.

The other thing that this book makes clear is that the personal computer hasn’t changed very much at all since 1984. Its component parts are largely unchanged: a motherboard, a central processing unit, RAM and ROM, I/O ports. Floppy disks have become USB sticks, while hard drives – which boasted at the time ‘between 5 and 50 megabytes of information – the equivalent of between 3,000 and 30,000 typewritten pages' – have fewer moving parts. But their function is the same as in the early models. Ditto the monitors, which have become flatter, and in colour. Even the mouse already existed, although back then its name still commanded inverted commas. Today’s computers, then, are a great deal more powerful, but otherwise fairly similar to what they were like three and a half decades ago. What makes them unrecognisable is that they’re all connected. And for that – for the internet – it makes even less sense to ‘take a look inside’. Inside what? Does the internet reside in the telephone exchange, or at the headquarters of ICANN, or where else?


The inside of a computer looks a bit like a city, but it’s an alien city. None of its buildings have doors or windows. The roads are made not of stone or asphalt but of plastic and metal.

The pictures above, by the way, show the guts of mine, which I recently upgraded. It’s what I used to write this blog and everything else from 2010 to June of this year, but I feel no attachment to it – it would be silly to.

There are guides on the web to help you mine your old computer for gold using household chemicals. They come with bold type warnings about how toxic the process is. But in fact computers are both hazardous to manufacture and to dismantle. Waste materials from all the PCs and assorted electronic devices discarded since 1984 have created massively polluted districts and cities in the global south. Places like the Agbogbloshie district of Accra, Ghana, and countless others. Vast dumping sites that are mined for scraps of precious metals as much as for the personal information left onto the hard drives, while leeching chemicals into the local water supply.

This would be a more meaningful inside in which to peer if we want to understand how computers work, and their effect on the world’s societies. One effect of globalisation has been to displace human labour. Not eliminate it, far from it, but rather create the illusion in the most advanced nations that manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and meaningful work consists in either farming the land or providing services. Automation has claimed many of those jobs, of course, but other have simply shifted away from the centres where most of the consumption takes place. This is another way in which the computer has become a mysterious machine: because no-one you know makes them.

Inside the Personal Computer was written 33 years ago in an effort to demystify an object that would soon become a feature in every household, and change everyone’s life. On the last page, it is no longer the book that ‘speaks’ to the reader, like in the first pop up, but the computer itself. Its message is perfectly friendly but in hindsight more than a little eerie.



Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Inferno XIV: Horrible justice


The full text of the canto in Italian/English


The giant lies on a bed of fiery sand, and barely seems to notice the lightning bolts that are raining upon him. Dante calls him quel grande, ‘that great one’, a qualifier that William Blake took to indicate physical as opposed to moral stature. It could have gone either way, really. For mythology dictates that Capaneus – one of the seven kings of Thebes – was both a man of indomitable spirit and enormous size.

Dante and Virgil have come to the third rung of the fifth circle of Hell, out of the forest of the suicides and to the edge of a desert where fire rains as thick and steady as snow in on a mountain on a day with no wind. This is di giustizia orribil arte, a horrible form of justice. The damned are naked – though in fact they all are, throughout Hell, it’s mentioned here just to emphasise the punishment – and react to the torment in different ways. Some crouch, some lie face down, some stomp around in a vain attempt to extinguish the flames. But not Capaneus. He lies still, disdainful, refusing to show any outward sign of pain. And when he boasts that an army of cyclops churning bolts out of the furnace of Mount Etna for Zeus to throw at him would not be sufficient to give to his enemy the satisfaction of seeing him squirm, Virgil retorts that this is the true nature of his punishment: not just suffering through an eternity of physical agony but also being consumed by that anger without outlets, save for this once in a death-time encounter with the unlikely traveller.

Di giustizia orribil arte. This is the essence of the Inferno and of its catalogue of punishments, which have to be borrowed from ancient literature because there is no explicit mention of Hell – let alone a detailed description – in either the Old or the New Testament. Although its roots date back to Augustine, Hell is a medieval invention: the distorted mirror, perhaps, to ordinary life for the majority of people. That ‘horrible justice’ warps the image of the merciful Christian God into an architect of infinite torture chambers. (Remember: in Dante’s vision, Satan is not the administrator of Hell, but its chief prisoner.)


We were taught about these things at high school. Our school had circles, too, and it too was upside down: in the sense that it started hard, and it finished easy. In the first two years, it separated the worthy from the unworthy. Of our intake of thirty-three, nine survived unscathed at the end of the first year. Nine were held back. The remainder had to set a varying number of remedial exams (call it Purgatory), which some failed so they were held back after ruining their summer holidays. The main rituals of school were the written and oral tests, both scheduled and unscheduled. The oral ones we called ‘interrogations’. They could happen at virtually any time, and its subjects were chosen via lotteries designed by the teachers which were sometimes so elaborate as to resemble the ancient art of the Kabbalah.

At the end of the first year, I was deemed one of the worthy ones. But only just. And on the last day our maths teacher warned me: study as if you had to sit a remedial exam, for I’ll test you as soon as school comes back. Which, naturally I didn’t. And so, on the first day we had maths after the summer holidays – I swear this is true – our teacher came into the classroom, put her book down, didn’t say hello, but rather: “Mr Tiso, please come to the blackboard.” Thus, I spent the remainder of that year trying to climb back the mountain of that failed mark. Another pilgrim’s progress.

By the time we covered Dante – from the third year to the fifth – the terror had abated somewhat. All of the unworthy (at least in the eyes of the school system) had been weeded out, and the subjects became easier. Not relative to the supposedly superior intellect and work ethics of the survivors, you understand, but in terms of the actual curriculum and the pace at which it was taught. The school’s brand of justice became a little less horrible, although in most respects it remained just as arbitrary and opaque.

This was the context of our Dante: a block of knowledge that sat on top and next to the others in the strange edifice we were intent on building. Just as in the study of history, philosophy and the rest of literature we were moving into the modern era – there to meet with the hard sciences we had been studying since the first year – in that weekly hour or two we returned to the Middle Ages.

It wasn’t an unpleasant detour, far from it. I think most of us rather enjoyed it. But all our subjects were compulsory, and we were never invited to question or reflect on the underlying logic. What was the theory of education that led to three years of close readings of the Divine Comedy alongside the study of Latin, algebra or physics? What sense were we supposed to make of all that knowledge, and whom was it supposed to turn us into?


Whilst continuing to walk alongside the great ring, between the forest and the sandy terrain on which the rain of fire falls, Dante and Virgil come to a stream of putrid red water. Why had they not crossed it before, and where does it come from, asks Dante to his guide. Virgil explains that their counter-clockwise trajectory down the pit of Hell hasn’t quite spanned the whole circumference yet. He then answers the second question: in the middle of the sea (ie the Mediterranean, the only sea that Dante knew) there is a paese guasto – a country in ruin – by the name of Crete, and on that island there’s a mountain, and inside that mountain there is the colossal statue of an old man, with his back on Egypt and the eyes bent toward Rome. His head is made of gold, his chest and arms of silver, his belly of copper, his leg and his left foot of iron, while the right foot – on which the statue leans – is made of clay. There is a crack running down the statue, from which a stream of tears springs. And these tears, which pool at the bottom of the hollow mountain, are the source of all of the rivers of Hell – Acheron, Styx and Phlegethon – as well as the stream to which the two poets have come.

For once, this is a biblical story: it is told in the book of Daniel, in the form of a dream of the king of Babylon’s, Nebuchadnezzar. Except his statue had both feet of clay, not just one (from which we get the expression ‘a giant with feet of clay’). The various materials of which the colossus is made are meant to represent the ages of humanity, and its progressive moral decay. What the allegory meant for Dante is not conclusively clear, though it is regarded as probable that the foot of clay represents the Papacy, the foot of iron the emperor: one weaker, but more heavily leaned on; the other stronger, but less relied upon.

For us, the giant is a mystery. For Dante, it was an explanation. For his world made a kind of sense that ours doesn’t, and never will again.

.




Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Inferno XIII: The forest of the things that aren't


Of all the cantos, this may be the saddest. Nowhere else does the worldview of the poet – which reflected the most enlightened thinking of his time, at least among Christians – seem more warped and distant. Hanging over it are all the innumerable personal stories lost to history of people whose mental illness was viewed by society as a sin.

George Grosz, Trees at Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (1946)

Having crossed the river of boiling blood that delimits the first level of the fifth circle, Dante and Virgil have come to the edge of a wood che da neun sentiero era segnato – that paths, it had none. This is the beginning of a description through negatives. You know the forests that surround Cecina and Tarquinia – asks the poet – where only the wild boars roam? Well, this one was nothing like that. And then:

Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ’nvolti;
non pomi v’eran, ma stecchi con tòsco.


Per Longfellow: not foliage green, but of a dusky colour; not branches smooth, but gnarled and intertangled; not apple-trees were there, but thorns with poison.

This is the forest of the things that aren’t. And so even its sole apparent living inhabitants – the harpies that nest among the trees – are not described and perhaps not even seen by Dante, but recalled from the relevant passage in Virgil’s Aeneid, safe for remarking that fanno lamenti in su li alberi strani: literally ‘they make laments up in the trees strange’, where strange could refer either to the trees or the laments.

However, what Dante hears as the pair ventures into the pathless wood are definitely human voices.

Io sentia d’ogne parte trarre guai
e non vedea persona che ’l facesse;


‘I heard on all sides lamentations uttered and person none beheld I who might make them.’ The absence now is the absence of human forms, from which the reader would quickly deduce that we’re in the presence of a very ancient trope, that of people turned into trees. But Dante – the great scholar of classical literature who thinks or pretends to think that his journey is not occurring in a book – appears blind to this most obvious of foreshadowings. Or does he? The next line is delicious.

Cred’ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse…
I thought he thought I thought…

So, to try to explain: Dante was standing in the forest, listening to voices of uncertain provenance, and (at the time of writing) he recalls thinking that Virgil might have been thinking that he (Dante) might have been thinking that people might be hiding among the trees. The implication of the line is that he didn’t in fact think that, but had figured that the voices were coming directly from the trees. So, when Virgil instructs him to break a twig off one of the trees, believing that he would not be believed if he just told him the truth, Dante plays along, but knowing that he would likely be causing pain to what is left of a person.

Therefore, he puts his hand forward, and gently plucks the thinnest of branches. To which a voice replies: Perché mi schiante (why do you break me?) and quickly again Perché mi scerpi (why do you tear me?). Maybe these tree-people are highly sensitive to pain. Or maybe this tree-person – one Piero della Vigna – is reacting so violently because he knows that the injury, however slight, was quite needless; that it was all a narrative pretext to get the action going.

For the trees cannot speak unless they are being attacked in that way. It is the Harpies which, by feeding on the leaves, fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra – ‘create pain, and a window to pain’.

It is a recurring question in the Inferno, whether for the spirits to talk to Dante is a form of torment or temporary reprieve. What he has to offer to them, in most cases – as he does to Piero – is the promise to speak of them to the living. And in fact, little would be known of this disgraced counsellor to emperor Frederick II, were it not for the Commedia. But remember the words of Francesca in the fifth canto: Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria. There is no greater pain that to think back on one’s happiness in a time of misery. And time, for the damned, stretches like a Mobius Strip: circular, eternal, always folding upon itself, always taking them back to the time of their personal Fall. To speak therefore is to feel pain and in this forest it is only through pain that the spirits can speak.


The second level of the fifth circle is reserved to suicides (and gamblers, which I won’t get into except to say their fate is to be hunted by dogs through the thick woods). It is lower than the first level, because for medieval theological ethics to cause harm upon oneself was worse than to cause harm to others. To take someone’s life is a crime against that person, and to the laws of God. But to take one’s own is a crime against nature, therefore directly against its creator. And God, who is omnipotent and cannot be harmed, nevertheless takes all offences against His divine person very seriously. Therefore, the mere murderers are upstairs, whereas those that squandered their own life or their own fortune are down here, and subject to an even more exquisite torment than being turned forever into ragout.

Remember: to suffer from what we would call depression, the Romantics called melancholy and medieval Christians called sloth, was also a deadly sin, and for similar reasons: to negate the beauty of life and creation was regarded as an affront to God. We already found the souls of the slothful who stopped short of suicide along with the souls of the violent who stopped short of murder, submerged in the murky waters of the Styx. Murderers and suicides similarly go together.

We can, I hope, reject outright these archaic notions. But as well as reaffirming this ethical system as it applies to the dead, the canto hints at its likely social consequences for the living. For while Piero’s speech is dignified and moves Dante to pity, the poet’s imagery – for which there is no known theological source – is merciless. In the end of ends, Piero explains, when all the spirits of Hell are reunited to their bodies after the Judgment, the suicides will be condemned instead to hang theirs from these branches: as a lifeless simulacrum and eternal reminder of the life that they rejected.

It’s hard to read these lines today without thinking of Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit, but those are historical contexts that resist comparison. What reading a medieval poem can also be good for, however, is to remind us that the stigma of mental illness has roots that reach very deep into our culture.





Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII.