Big Data meets the Bard

By John Sunyer


Here’s some advice for bibliophiles with teetering piles of books and not enough hours in the day: don’t read them. Instead, feed the books into a computer program and make graphs, maps and charts: it is the best way to get to grips with the vastness of literature. That, at least, is the recommendation of Franco Moretti, a 63-year-old professor of English at Stanford University and unofficial leader of a band of academics bringing a science-fiction thrill to the science of fiction.

For centuries, the basic task of literary scholarship has been close reading of texts. But for digitally savvy academics such as Moretti, literary study doesn’t always require scholars actually to read books. This new approach to literature depends on computers to crunch “big data”, or stores of massive amounts of information, to produce new insights.

Who, for example, would have guessed that, according to a 2011 Harvard study of four per cent (that is, five million) of all the books printed in English, less than half the number of words used are included in dictionaries, the rest being “lexical dark matter”? Or that, as a recent study using the same database carried out by the universities of Bristol, Sheffield and Durham reveals, “American English has become decidedly more ‘emotional’ than British English in the last half-century”?

Not everyone is convinced by this approach. In n+1, a New York-based journal of culture and politics, the writer Elif Batuman summarises the ambivalence to Moretti’s work: “[His] concepts have all the irresistible magnetism of the diabolical.” For Moretti, however, “The use of technology to study literature is only radical when you consider it in the context of the humanities – the most backward discipline in the academy. Mining texts for data makes it possible to look at the bigger picture – to understand the context in which a writer worked on a scale we haven’t seen before.”

Moretti’s Distant Reading, a collection of his essays published this month, brings together more than 10 years of research and marks a significant departure from the traditional study of novels. As Moretti writes in “Conjectures on World Literature” (a 2000 article reprinted in Distant Reading): “At bottom … [literary study is] a theological exercise – very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously – whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.”

Thus, in “Style, Inc”, Moretti takes 7,000 British novels published between 1740 and 1850 and feeds them into a computer. The results reveal that books with long titles became drastically less common during this period. What happened, he wonders, to books with titles such as: The Capacity and Extent of Human Understanding; Exemplified in the Extraordinary Case of Automathes: a Young Nobleman; Who was Accidentally Left in his Infancy, Upon a Desolate Island, and Continued Nineteen Years in that Solitary State, Separate From All Human Society. A Narrative Abounding With Many Surprising Occurrences, Both Useful and Entertaining to the Reader?

There are, insists Moretti, interesting questions to be asked about the short titles that took their place. For example, why are adjectives so common in titles about mothers and fathers, but absent in titles about vampires and pirates? “By becoming short,” according to Moretti, “[titles] adopted a signifying strategy that made readers look for a unity in the narrative structure.” This is an important stylistic development – “a perceptual shift which has persisted for 200 years”.

. . .

Moretti was born in Sondrio, a small town in northern Italy, in 1950. He left the University of Rome in 1972 with a doctorate in modern literature and taught at various Italian universities. But it wasn’t until the 1990s, when he moved to America to teach in the English department at Columbia University, New York, that he became interested in the idea of “distant reading”. In 2000, he moved to California for a teaching post at Stanford, a private university recognised as one of the world’s leading research institutes. Ten years later he co-founded the Stanford Literary Lab, “And from that moment big data was no longer only something geeks did in science labs,” he says with a big laugh.

One day about four weeks ago, Moretti invited me to attend a Stanford Literary Lab seminar via Skype. The lab, with three full-time staff and about 30 students and faculty members, aims to “pursue literary research of a digital and quantitative nature”.

There wasn’t much glitz on show in the small, cramped room. In fact, there was little to suggest that this was, in effect, the office of the world’s most elite group of data-diggers in the humanities, other than some algorithms on a white board and the ubiquitous laptop computers. I didn’t spot any books but then, perhaps, that’s what one might expect. Ryan Heuser, 27-year-old associate director for research at the Literary Lab, tells me he can’t remember the last time he read a novel. “It was probably a few years ago and it was probably a sci-fi. But I don’t think I’ve read any fiction since I’ve been involved with the lab.”

The seminar was to consider Augustine’s Confessions, written in the fourth century and often called the first western autobiography. The lab members gave the sort of slick presentation you might expect from analysts in an investment bank. The language they used – algorithms, z-scores, principal component analysis, clustering coefficients, and so on – would have been familiar to an internet software engineer or mathematician.

Matthew Jockers, a 46-year-old professor of English, tech whizz and co-founder of the Literary Lab, was also in attendance on Skype. Later he told me, “We are reaching a tipping point. Today’s student of literature must be adept at gathering evidence from individual texts and equally adept at mining digital text repositories.”

Jockers spent more than a decade at Stanford before moving last year to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He holds the distinction of being the first English professor to assign more than 1,200 novels in one class. “Luckily for the students, they didn’t have to read them,” he says.

In his recent book Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (2013), Jockers publishes a list of the most influential writers of the 19th century. The study is based on an analysis of 3,592 works published from 1780 to 1900, he explains. It took a lot of digging, and a computer did it by cross-checking about 700 variables across the sample, including, for example, word frequencies and the absence or presence of themes such as death.

“Literary history would tell you to expect Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Mark Twain to be at the top of the list,” says Jockers. But the data revealed that Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen had the greatest effect on other authors, in terms of writing style and themes.


The idea of graphing and mapping texts isn’t new. In 1946, when computers were enormous and the internet wasn’t even an idea, a young Italian Jesuit priest, Father Busa, started work on software that could perform text searches within the vast corpus of Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher-saint. Three years later he persuaded Thomas J Watson, the founder of IBM, to sponsor his research. Index Thomisticus, a machine-generated concordance, was completed in the late 1970s.

Scholars have also long been interested in the quantitative analysis of language – albeit without the help of computers. For example, Russian formalism, which signalled a more practical, scientific spirit to literary criticism, flourished in the 1920s.

In Player Piano (1952), the US writer and satirist Kurt Vonnegut predicted a dystopia in which giant computers have taken over brain work. He had earlier proposed, tongue-in-cheek, that a character’s ups and downs could be graphed to reveal a novel’s wider plot. A grainy YouTube video shows Vonnegut demonstrating the “shapes of stories” using nothing more than chalk and a blackboard: “There’s no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers,” he says in a deadpan way.

The big breakthrough came in 2004, when Google developed an electronic scanner capable of digitising books. No longer did researchers interested in tracking cultural and linguistic trends have to endure the laborious process of inspecting volumes one by one. Soon after Google’s digital archive went online, five of the largest libraries in the world signed on as partners. And, more or less just like that, literature had the potential to become data on an unprecedented scale.

“There are hundreds of digital projects in the humanities taking place,” Andrew Prescott, head of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, tells me. The emerging field is, he says, “best understood as an umbrella term covering a wide range of activities, from online preservation and digital mapping to data mining.”

In To Save Everything, Click Here (2013), technology writer Evgeny Morozov notes that Amazon is sitting on vast amounts of data collected from its Kindle devices about what part of a book people are most likely to give up reading. In the not-too-distant future, Morozov speculates, Amazon could build a system that uses this aggregated reading data to write novels automatically that are tailored to readers’ tastes. Will there be a point where writers and readers will admit defeat, acknowledging that the computers championed by Moretti know best?

“My impression is that Moretti is a passionate and astute scholar,” the novelist Jonathan Franzen tells me. “I doubt it is his aim to put novelists and novel readers out of business.” Though new technology does not sit well with Franzen (he once admitted gluing up his Ethernet port, saying, “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”), he is a fan of Moretti’s work. “The canon is necessarily restrictive. So what you get is generation after generation of scholarship struggling to say anything new. There are only so many ways you can keep saying Proust is great.

“It can be dismaying to see Kafka or Conrad or Brontë read not for pleasure but as cultural artefacts,” he continues. “To use new technology to look at literature as a whole, which has never really been done before, rather than focusing on complex and singular works, is a good direction for cultural criticism to move in. Paradoxically, it may even liberate the canonical works to be read more in the spirit in which they were written.”

If Franzen could wind back the clock, would he choose to study in a literary lab? “It might have been tempting but I feel lucky not to have had the choice,” he says.

Melissa Terras, 38, who since 2003 has been working in University College London’s Centre for Digital Humanities, says: “Even big data patterns need someone to understand them. And to understand the question to ask of the data requires insight into cultures and history … The big threat is that most work in the digital humanities isn’t done by individuals. The past 200 years of humanities has been the lone scholar. But for work in the digital humanities, you need a programmer, an interface expert, and so on.”

Not all the traditionalists are going quietly into the night. Harold Bloom, 82, an American critic and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, once described Moretti’s theory of distant reading as an “absurdity … I am interested in reading. That’s all I’m interested in.” (Speaking in 2007, Bloom claimed that in his prime he could read 1,000 pages an hour, enabling him to digest Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina over lunch, if he so wished. Moretti might retort that a computer could do this in microseconds.)

Moretti is used to defending his work. “I’ve received so much shit for the quantitative stuff,” he admits. “But this new and many-sided discipline hasn’t yet completely expressed itself. There is resistance because, for generations, the study of literature has been organised according to different principles. Quantitative analysis wasn’t [previously] considered worthy of study.”

As Jockers says: “Literary scholars have traditionally had to defend their worth against those working in the sciences. Yet now that literature is beginning to reek of science, there’s a knee-jerk reaction against it. We can’t win. There’s an endless battle between the disciplines. I’m still repeatedly accused of ‘taking the human out of humanities’.”

Still, as the data revolution progresses, more universities are finding clever ways to aggregate and analyse massive amounts of information. Distant reading remains “a complex, thorny issue,” says Moretti. “Will we succeed? Who knows. But in the next few years, people will use this data in ways we can’t imagine yet. For me, that’s the most exciting development.”



Special Topics in Mindboggling Physics

By Peter Birkenhead

Some people cut themselves, some do drugs. I try to understand physics. Cosmology, to be precise.

I could have spent the last few decades banging my head against a telescope and achieved the same results I’ve gotten reading about string theory, bubble-verses and, oh my God, Schrödinger’s goddamn cat. Yet somehow, every few years I manage to forget what Stephen Hawking did to me that summer in Boston, or how Richard Feynman left me sprawled and groaning on the bedroom floor, and after glancing at just a few pages of elegant introduction, succumb again to another science popularizer with great blurbs.

The first few days are always exciting. Thrilling, even, as he or she takes me by the hand and leads me through special relativity, general relativity and black holes, ideas that I understand just barely enough to wish I understood more. But then the writer asks me to do something I’m not capable of. The proposal is never threatening, but it always amounts to this: Imagine another dimension. OK? Just imagine another dimension! C’mon, what are you waiting for? Imagine it!

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have, on more than one occasion, faked imagining. Pretended, even to myself, that I was visualizing a fourth or tenth dimension, a whole other, discrete spatial reality coexisting with our own, while I secretly strained to catch a glimpse of such a thing wafting through my tiny, deeply inadequate mind.

Sometime last fall, while reading page 70-something of Brian Green’s The Hidden Reality, a wonderful survey of possible multiverses, I started to sense that The Order to Imagine was imminent, and took a much-needed break. I put the book in my lap, thumbed its pages, and scanned the titles on my shelves. I slumped a little, fell into what my wife calls “that early-onset Alzheimer’s look,” and lingered over some old memories. Not of books. And not of the places where I’d read them or the people I knew at the time. What came to me weren’t memories at all, in fact, but senses that had emerged during my reading of books and were still present—faded mental photographs of what Wallace Stegner’s West looked like to a 23-year-old on the Lower East Side in 1984. Boozy Cheever commuter-train reveries while driving Volkswagens. Desire. Rage. Awe. Nostalgia. Fleeting, but large and substantial, they coalesced into houses, even cities, sprawling complexes of almost-visible realities, inchoate yet not amorphous, full of dark attics and abandoned lots, alleyways, highways, tunnels, and basements.

I own a lot of books—many that are not wonderful but that I have real affection for, the way one does a hometown. With books, as with cities, good and bad can sometimes seem beside the point. I can either live in a place or not. Take up residence in a book, even if just for the night, or leave. A million people may live in Dallas but I will never be one of them. Not because it isn’t a perfectly nice place in many ways, but because I feel no desire to get lost in it. If a book can’t disorient me just a little bit, if it can’t get me some kind of lost, I won’t stay with it for very long.

I don’t mean lost from myself. Literature provides passage toward the self, not away from it, promising escape only from the temptations of escapism. It makes visible a world that exists in the spaces between things: book and reader, author and page, “I” and “Thou.” Another dimension. The novelist and the cosmologist are ultimately engaged in similar pursuits. Literature doesn’t depict, it observes. It observes a reality that it conjures into existence by observing it, just like, well, like Schrödinger’s goddamn cat.

Touring my library, I sensed something real but elusive, a space curling slightly off of, or dropping just below, the spaces I could see. Physicists offer all sorts of possible explanations for the existence of this kind of reality, many of them involving the convolutions space and time go through as they are subjected to observation, recording, interpretation, history, and memory. The elements of literature.

Astrophysicists can frequently seem to be engaged in the work of novelists. And by the same token, the best literature is often unabashed cosmology. I began reading physics when I started reading Chekhov:

He went on to the bridge, stood a little, and, quite unnecessarily, touched the sheets. They felt rough and cold. He looked down at the water. . . . The river ran rapidly and with a faintly audible gurgle round the piles of the bath-house. The red moon was reflected near the left bank; little ripples ran over the reflection, stretching it out, breaking it into bits, and seemed trying to carry it away.

“How stupid, how stupid!” thought Ryabovitch, looking at the running water. “How unintelligent it all is!”

Now that he expected nothing, the incident of the kiss, his impatience, his vague hopes and disappointment, presented themselves in a clear light. It no longer seemed to him strange that he had not seen the General’s messenger, and that he would never see the girl who had accidentally kissed him instead of someone else; on the contrary, it would have been strange if he had seen her. . . .

The water was running, he knew not where or why, just as it did in May. In May it had flowed into the great river, from the great river into the sea; then it had risen in vapor, turned into rain, and perhaps the very same water was running now before Ryabovitch’s eyes again. . . . What for? Why?

“The Kiss” (and Vanya, and all of it) sent me toward other stories that explicitly made the universe of the mind their subject. Richard Ford articulated for me the metaphysics of baseball; Jennifer Egan convinced me that I was composed of the same stuff as a young, club-hopping, female fashion model. Harold Pinter helped me hear silence, and Oliver Sacks gave me new understandings of words like “vision” and “holy.” I eventually found myself making a small hobby of reading the complementary, if often infuriatingly frustrating, literature of cosmology.

“Literature” might be a stretch, I suppose. But just as Chekhov can sound like a cosmologist, a talented physics writer like Richard Feynman often seems to be channeling the good doctor:

Some people say, “How can you live without knowing?” I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know.

I finished The Hidden Reality without any head trauma. Whether or not Feynman, Hawking, Greene, and their ilk are great writers, their work is important to me. Not despite my failure to grasp many of their ideas, but because of it.

Their books may be my least favorite to read, but as I do, and the universe they describe grows curiouser and curiouser, I become more intrigued. Authors who write well about space and time know there is no distance as great as the thickness of a human skull; that the chasms separating one person’s reality from another’s are as worthy of our attention as interstellar space.

Cosmology is Chekhovian work: watching distances collapse and expand, ghost images from various histories reasserting themselves, futures circling back to the present, minds struggling to reconcile themselves to ever-shifting notions of truth. As I read the work of physicists, the limits and mysteries of my own mind become more apparent to me. Even as I look around for a nice, big telescope to bang my ahead against, I feel more conscious, more determined to transcend those limits, if only a little bit, for only a little while.

And that’s when I pick up a good novel.

Sam Leith’s most hated online abbreviations

By Sam Leith

Thanks to the on-the-hoof style of chat-rooms and the curtailed nature of the text message and tweet, online abbreviations are now an established part of written English. The question of which is the most irritating, however, is a matter of scholarly debate. Here, by way of opening the discussion, are 10 contenders.

Linguists like to make a distinction between the denotative function of a sign – what it literally means – and the connotative, which is (roughly) what it tells you by implication. The denotative meanings of these abbreviations vary over a wide range. But pretty much all of them connote one thing, which is: “I am a douchebag.”

1) LOL

This is the daddy of them all. In the last decade it has effortlessly overtaken “The cheque’s in the post” and “I love you” as the most-often-told lie in human history. Out loud? Really? And, to complicate things, people are now saying LOL out loud, which is especially banjaxing since you can’t simultaneously say “LOL” and laugh aloud unless you can laugh through your arse. Or say “LOL” through your arse, I suppose, which makes a sort of pun because, linguistically speaking, LOL is now a form of phatic communication. See what I did there? Mega-LOL!


You Only Live Once. But not for very much longer if you use this abbreviation anywhere near me when I’m holding a claw-hammer. This, as the distinguished internet scholar Matt Muir puts it, is “carpe diem for people with an IQ in double figures”. A friend of mine reports her children using this out loud. This has to end.

3) TBH

To Be Honest. We expect you to be honest, not to make some weary three-fingered gesture of reluctance at having to pony up an uncomfortable truth for an audience who probably can’t really take it. It’s out of the same drawer as “frankly” and “with respect”, and it should be returned to that drawer forthwith.


In My Humble Opinion. The H in this acronym is always redundant, and the M is usually redundant too: it’s generally an opinion taken off-the-peg from people you follow on Twitter and by whom you hope to be retweeted.


Just Fucking Google It. Well, charming. Glad I came to you for help. A wittier and more passive-aggressive version of this rude put-down is the website, which allows you to send your interlocutor a custom-made link saying “Let Me Google That For You” and doing so. My friend Stefan Magdalinski once sent me there, and I can say from first-hand experience that he’s a complete asshole.

6) tl;dr

It stands for “too long; didn’t read”. This abbreviation’s only redeeming feature is that it contains that murmuring under-butler of punctuation marks, the semicolon. On the other hand, it announces that the user is taking time out of his or her life to tell the world not that he disagrees with something, but that he’s ignorant of it. In your face, people who know stuff! In an ideal world there would be a one-character riposte that would convey that you’d stopped reading halfway through your interlocutor’s tedious five-character put-down.


If You Know What I Mean. Ironic, that, because the first time someone used that acronym to me I had to look it up on Urban Dictionary. NIDKWYM.

8) TMI

Too Much Information. There’s something annoying about this tonally. In the first place it makes everyone who uses it sound like a member of the cast of HeathersClueless or Gossip Girl – ie a spoilt teenage girl who’ll say “OM Actual G” out loud and do “whatever” signs with her hands. In the second it’s a bloody cheek. You’re on a social networking site. The whole point of social networking is overshare.


As Far As I Recall. Rather like IMHO, this is pseudo self-effacement; with the background implication that your time is too precious to actually check, and that we should simply be grateful for this spark flickering from the vast Van Der Graaf Generator of your mind. Like newspaper columnists who ask: “Was it Voltaire, who said …?” LMGTFY.

10) NSFW

Not Safe For Work. How do you know where I work? It just so happens I work in a pornographic meme factory filled with obese 70-year-old men in leather hoods poinking farmyard animals in the ear.

Surrender to Proust

By Morgan Meis

It is a hundred years since Marcel Proust finished his novel Swann’s Way. The novel became the first volume of Proust’s seven-volume work Remembrance of Things PastRemembrance of Things Past is now one of the accepted masterpieces of 20th century literature. But that greatness was not so easy to see a hundred years ago. Publishers initially rejected Swann’s Way.

By the virtues of critical hindsight, we like to make fun of the supposed misjudgments of the past. Van Gogh could never sell a painting. Moby Dick was barely read during Melville’s lifetime. Proust’s writing was met with initial disregard. But all that changes when an artist is recognized as a master. We now approach a painting by Van Gogh as something holy, something preordained to be great. It is likewise nearly impossible, today, to pick up Proust without preconceptions, without already knowing that you are holding a “great work of literature” in your hands. Knowing that you are reading a work of genius, it is difficult to recognize that Swann’s Way is strange.

The opening line of Swann’s Way is about falling asleep. Proust writes, “For a long time I used to go to bed early” (C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s 1922 translation). There follow many pages about Proust sleeping, about the ease and difficulty of falling asleep, about snatches of dreams and brief bouts of wakefulness, about how his mother used to tuck him into bed, about sleep in ancient man and in the more recent past, about the philosophical essence of sleep as the temporary loss of ego, and finally, memories of M. Swann, “poor old Swann” a friend of Proust’s family and the ostensible subject of the novel.

Early readers of the novel can be forgiven for not immediately liking Swann’s Way. In a recent article for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein quotes an evaluation of Swann’s Way from the publishers who first rejected the book. The evaluator complains, “I cannot understand how a man can take 30 pages to describe how he turns round in his bed before he finally falls asleep.”

Many readers of Proust have noticed that he was a writer who took his time. Walter Benjamin once observed that Proust, as a man and writer, loved to multiply complications. Benjamin compares Proust’s love of complication to an anonymous letter that goes: “My dear Madam, I just noticed that I forgot my cane at your house yesterday; please be good enough to give it to the bearer of this letter. P.S. Kindly pardon me for disturbing you; I just found my cane.”

Proust wrote literature with the same sensibility as the man who composed that letter. This can make it difficult to read Proust unless you are attuned to that sensibility. “Attunement” is a good word for what it takes to learn to read Proust — music played a significant role in Proust’s life and writing. The critic Edmund Wilson was one of the first writers to notice the importance of music in understanding Proust. Wilson wrote an essay about Remembrance of Things Past for The New Republic back in 1928. In the essay, Wilson argued that, “Like so many other important modern writers, Proust had been reared in the school of symbolism and had all the symbolist’s preoccupation with musical effects. Like many of his generation, he was probably as deeply influenced by Wagner as by any writer of books.” Wilson goes on to note that the opening chapter of Remembrance of Things Past is titled “Overture.” Proust was structuring his giant work of literature like a symphony. Over the last few generations of literary scholarship there have been countless attempts to explain just how to interpret each chapter and volume of Remembrance of Things Past along musical lines. You can read, for instance, that Swann’s Way can be broken down into the exposition, development, and capitulation of the sonata-allegro form of musical composition.

But these works of scholarship probably take the musical influence too literally. Wilson is right that Proust was heavily influenced by Symbolism and that he loved music. All this means is that Proust listened to the music of his time, particularly works from composers like Saint-Saens and Gabriel Fauré. He liked the way this music made him feel and he wanted to write literature that evoked the same feeling. What is that feeling? I’d recommend listening to works like Fauré’s First Violin Sonata and Saint-Saens’ Sonata No. 1 for Piano and Violin. Either of those works (there are other candidates) may have been the inspiration for the famous “little phrase” of music by the fictional composer Vinteul in Swann’s Way. In the novel, M. Swann becomes obsessed with this piece of music and asks his beloved, Odette, to play it for him over and over again.

The little phrase of music becomes important to Swann because it reminds him that his love for Odette is not a “digression without importance,” but something, “on the contrary, so far superior to everyday life as to be alone worthy of the trouble of expressing it.” Proust goes on to explain that, “Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadows, unknown, impenetrable by the human mind, which none the less were perfectly distinct one from another, unequal among themselves in value and in significance.”

The subject of Swann and the little musical phrase by Vinteul inspired Proust into one of his rhapsodies of language. Such rhapsodies break out every few chapters in Remembrance of Things Past. Swann, wrote Proust, “knew that his memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still, almost all of it, unknown), on which, here and there only, separated by the gross darkness of its unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys, keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by certain great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme which they have found, of shewing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night, discouraging exploration, of our soul, which we have been content to regard as valueless and waste and void.”

The passage does not stop there. The discussion of music and the “little phrase” goes on for several more pages of equally breathless prose. When Proust writes like this, when he breaks into his rhapsodies, the sentences get longer. He uses more (and lengthier) subordinate clauses. The sentences are like great piles of words with all the folds and layers of an unspooled bolt of fabric spilling onto the floor. Those sentences, those great unspooling sentences, are the “little phrases” of Proust’s novel. Proust figured out how to write in a way that could create the same emotions that he felt when listening to the contemporary composers he loved. Proust was experimenting with sentences just as the composers were experimenting with musical phrases. Fauré, for instance, was messing around with whole tone scales and various early techniques of polytonality to create a specific emotional feel in his music. Just listen to this clip of Michelangeli playing Debussy’s Danseuses de Delphes (Debussy was a student of Fauré) to hear the dreamy effect of whole tone scales.

The point is that composers in Proust’s time were experimenting with the “syntax” of music in order to capture a specific feeling. That feeling is dreamy and indistinct by nature. So, it is hard to talk about. Just listen to the Debussy again. Proust has his own words to describe the feeling that this music evokes. He lays it out in the passage quoted above. He says this music awakens in us, “the emotion … of … richness … [that] lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night … of our soul.”

It is not that Proust wanted to structure his novel exactly like a symphony or that he was looking for a one-to-one correspondence between music and writing. Proust was simply looking for a way to get that same feeling that would wash over him as he listened to certain kinds of music. Proust says that the “little phrase” of music existed latent in Swann’s mind, “in the same way as certain other conceptions without material equivalent, such as our notions of light, of sound, of perspective, of bodily desire, the rich possessions wherewith our inner temple is diversified and adorned. Perhaps we shall lose them, perhaps they will be obliterated, if we return to nothing in the dust. But so long as we are alive, we can no more bring ourselves to a state in which we shall not have known them than we can with regard to any material object, than we can, for example, doubt the luminosity of a lamp that has just been lighted, in view of the changed aspect of everything in the room, from which has vanished even the memory of the darkness.”

The entire structure of Remembrance of Things Past, insofar as it has a structure, is meant to create a loose scaffolding for these incredible sentences, for these moments when Proust burrows his prose deepest into the murky core of his own existence and shines a light on aspects of his being, and thus our own experience, that we rarely get to see. For this reason, reading Swann’s Way can feel like falling into a dream. Pages will drift by light as ether. You sometimes forget you are reading. You get lost in the stories, the memories. Is Proust still unfolding that memory of his grandmother in Combray or have we moved back to the present tense again? You have to re-read Proust more than you do other authors. You have to move back and forth in the text, finding your place again. The dream world puts you to sleep. That’s okay. Let it do that. Let yourself fall away into the sleepy prose and then you will have the experience of snapping awake, suddenly, when Proust goes into one of his rhapsodies. The prose itself will shake you awake. “Now,” Proust will say, “now, I really have something to tell you.”

You cannot have an entire book of luminous sentences, just as you cannot have an entire musical composition made of poignant “little phrases.” The endless trivial babble of Proust’s various great-aunts provides necessary resting places, stretches of boredom from which extraordinary moments of Being can finally be plucked. But that is how experience is. Proust found a way to make his prose as numbing as the emptiest of conversations. And then, when you’ve started to lose the thread of the narrative completely, the urgency of his writing will start to jump and tremble on the page again and you’ll feel yourself convulsed “in one of those sobs which a fine line of poetry or a piece of alarming news will wring from us.”

This makes for strange reading, dreamy reading, reading that ebbs and flows, never submitting to anything definite. It is reading that demands surrender. It is reading that obliterates preconceptions. Swann’s Way is still as disconcerting as it must have been one hundred years ago. And it is still beautiful, still unique, still as precious as when Proust first delivered it to his baffled publishers one day in 1913 on a street in Paris, in an age that is as remote to us, now, as the pyramids of Egypt, but that can come rushing back to us in streams of vivid and hallucinatory memories from the mind of one of the strangest, most delicate, most relentlessly reflective men of his, or any, time.

Long Hidden, Vatican Painting Linked To Native Americans

By Sylvia Poggioli


For close to 400 years, the painting was closed off to the world. For the past 124 years, millions of visitors walked by without noticing an intriguing scene covered with centuries of grime.

Only now, the Vatican says a detail in a newly cleaned 15th century fresco shows what may be one of the first European depictions of Native Americans.


The fresco, The Resurrection, was painted by the Renaissance master Pinturicchio in 1494 — just two years after Christopher Columbus first set foot in what came to be called the New World.

Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, told the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano that after the soot and grime were removed, in the background, just above the open coffin from where Christ has risen, “we see nude men, decorated with feathered headdresses who appear to be dancing.” One of them seems to sport a Mohican cut.

The image dovetails with Columbus’ description of having been greeted by dancing nude men painted black or red.

Commissioned By The Pope

The painting was commissioned by Pope Alexander VI. Anyone who has followed the TV seriesThe Borgias knows he was the infamous Rodrigo Borgia, a Spaniard who fathered several children and became a symbol of church corruption.

Alexander VI became pope in 1492, only a few months before Columbus made landfall.

Art historian Paolucci is convinced the entire Pinturicchio fresco cycle for the Borgia Apartments inside the Vatican had been completed by the end of 1494.

“The Borgia pope was interested in the New World, as were the great chancelleries of Europe,” Paolucci told L’Osservatore Romano.

Columbus’ four trips to the New World were financed by the Spanish royals Ferdinand and Isabella.

On his return to Spain in March 1493 from his first journey, Columbus handed over his travel journal to the sovereigns who, according to Paolucci, had every interest in keeping it secret.

A Secret That Spread Quickly

But word of Columbus’ sensational discovery soon spread throughout Europe.

“It is hard to believe,” Paolucci said, “that the Borgia papal court would be unaware of what Columbus saw when he reached the ends of the earth.”

Hence, the art historian believes, the dancing figures in Pinturicchio’s Resurrection could be “the first depiction of Native Americans.”

The Borgia pope’s links to the New World do not end there.

Alexander VI played a key role in determining how history would play out in what would become The Americas and who would reap the benefits: While Pinturicchio was painting his cycle, Alexander was busy drafting the Tordesillas treaty of June 1494 that divided up the newly discovered territories between the two major naval powers of the time, Spain and Portugal.

One can’t help but imagine Alexander pondering the implications of Columbus’ discovery while Pinturicchio was concentrating on his brush strokes on the fresh plaster of the Vatican walls.

Pope Alexander has a prominent position in the painting — he’s the large figure in ornate robes kneeling on the left, his hands clasped in prayer.

But it’s not clear whether he’s more transfixed by the image of the risen Christ or by the potential spoils of the New World, represented by the nude dancing figures.

Until now, it was believed that the first known European depictions of Native Americans were those of the British artist John White, who was governor of the colony at Roanoke Island.

But he wasn’t even born until nearly half a century after the discovery of the New World.

Pinturicchio’s nude figures remained forgotten because the Borgia Apartments were sealed off after Pope Alexander’s death in 1503. His successor, Julius II, said he would never live in the rooms of the pope who had so tainted the church’s reputation. And Julius ordered that all paintings made for the Borgias be covered in black crepe.

It was not until 1889 that the Borgia Apartments were reopened and dedicated to the display of religious art.

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked

By Esther Inglis-Arkell


Original Greek statues were brightly painted, but after thousands of years, those paints have worn away. Find out how shining a light on the statues can be all that’s required to see them as they were thousands of years ago.

Although it seems impossible to think that anything could be left to discover after thousands of years of wind, sun, sand, and art students, finding the long lost patterns on a piece of ancient Greek sculpture can be as easy as shining a lamp on it. A technique called ‘raking light’ has been used to analyze art for a long time. A lamp is positioned carefully enough that the path of the light is almost parallel to the surface of the object. When used on paintings, this makes brushstrokes, grit, and dust obvious. On statues, the effect is more subtle. Brush-strokes are impossible to see, but because different paints wear off at different rates, the stone is raised in some places – protected from erosion by its cap of paint – and lowered in others. Elaborate patterns become visible.

Ultraviolet is also used to discern patterns. UV light makes many organic compounds fluoresce. Art dealers use UV lights to check if art has been touched up, since older paints have a lot of organic compounds and modern paints have relatively little. On ancient Greek statues, tiny fragments of pigment still left on the surface glow bright, illuminating more detailed patterns.

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked

Once the pattern is mapped, there is still the problem of figuring out which paint colors to use. A series of dark blues will create a very different effect than gold and pink. Even if enough pigment is left over so that the naked eye can make out a color, a few thousand years can really change a statue’s complexion. There’s no reason to think that color seen today would be anything like the hues the statues were originally painted.

There is a way around this dilemma. The colors may fade over time, but the original materials – plant and animal-derived pigments, crushed stones or shells – still look the same today as they did thousands of years ago. This can also be discovered using light.

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked

Infrared and X-ray spectroscopy can help researchers understand what the paints are made of, and how they looked all that time ago. Spectroscopy relies on the fact that atoms are picky when it comes to what kind of incoming energy they absorb. Certain materials will only accept certain wavelengths of light. Everything else they reflect. Spectroscopes send out a variety of wavelengths, like scouts into a foreign land. Inevitably, a few of these scouts do not come back. By noting which wavelengths are absorbed, scientists can determine what materials the substance is made of. Infrared helps determine organic compounds. X-rays, because of their higher energy level, don’t stop for anything less than the heavier elements, like rocks and minerals. Together, researchers can determine approximately what color a millennia-old statue was painted.

The color? Always something tacky.

‘Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing’ by Melissa Mohr, review

By Sam Leith

It’s wonderful stuff, swearing. It stiffens the sinews and summons up the blood, and not just metaphorically. Obscenities actually do act on us physiologically. Swearing increases electrical conductance across the skin, pushes the heart rate higher and measurably increases resistance to pain.

Obscenities are also linguistically interesting in themselves: the more currency they have, the more their emotional colouring and the associations they trigger overwhelms what they actually mean. “Fucking”, these days, only rarely means “having sex”. And they become marvellously plastic, grammatically.

Swearing doesn’t just mean what we now understand by “dirty words”. It is entwined, in social and linguistic history, with the other sort of swearing: vows and oaths. Consider for a moment the origins of almost any word we have for bad language – “profanity”, “curses”, “oaths” and “swearing” itself .

Melissa Mohr’s title, then, is more than just an attention-grabber: the history of swearing is one of a movement back and forth between the holy and the shit. At different times in the history of the west, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body. (The latter, though, does subdivide in a meaningful way between the sexual and the excremental. Really, this book should have been called “Holy Fucking Shit”.)

Though Mohr is mainly interested in English, she is generous in roping in examples from outside it. A helpful and interesting chapter on ancient Roman filth does much to sketch the background, too. How do we know what was obscene in a dead language? By literary genre, essentially: if it was written on the toilet wall but didn’t appear in satire, it was likely to be properly rude. English has a “Big Six”: “cunt”, “fuck”, “cock”, “arse”, “shit” and “piss” (though Mohr plausibly suggests that “nigger” should now be in there). The Romans had a “Big 10”: cunnus (cunt), futuo (fuck), mentula (cock), verpa (erect or circumcised cock), landica (clitoris), culus (arse), pedico (bugger), caco (shit), fello (fellate) and irrumo (er, mouth-rape).

So the Romans, like us, had a primary relationship between the body and the idea of obscenity – though their sexual schema was a little different, with shame attaching, above all, to sexual passivity. Sexual obscenity also, to complicate things, had a sacramental function – as witness the fruity ways of the god Priapus. Some of that shit was holy.

In medieval times, though, the emphasis was all on the holy. Common words for places and things contained vulgarities regarded as quite innocuous. London and Oxford both boasted a “Gropecuntelane”, which is where the prostitutes hung out, and if you visited a country pond “there would’ve been a shiterow in there fishing, a windfucker flying above, arse-smart and cuntehoare hugging the edges of the pond, and pissabed amongst the grass”. At the same time it’s hard to recapture quite how shocking medieval people would find a vain oath.

Christianity was founded on oaths and covenants – as was the whole dispensation of feudal society. To swear an oath was to compel God to pay attention to your promise – and to do so in vain was to dishonour God and risk eternal damnation. Indeed, it was believed that if you swore on God’s body – “‘sblood!”; “God’s bones!”; “by Christ’s nails!” – you physically spilled his blood, broke his bones and tore out his nails in heaven.

Mohr credits the decline in the importance of oath-swearing to the rise of the merchant classes. Feudal society’s scheme of estates was bound by chains of oaths between lords and vassals, right up to the king. Capitalism moved us from oaths to contracts: the oath before God became less important than keeping your word to business partners – and you didn’t need eschatological terror to enforce that. Plus, there’s the dry, old complaint that swearing constantly “devalues the currency”. Between 1640 and 1660, around the civil war, men might have to swear as many as 10 conflicting oaths of loyalty if they wanted to keep their heads attached to their necks.

At the same time, something else was going on: the idea of privacy. In an age when everybody pissed and shat in public, and sex would as like as not take place in a room or even a bed shared with others, taboos around bodily functions weren’t all that strong. Chaucer‘s “swiving“, “toords“, “queyntes” and “erses” were vulgar and direct, but they weren’t obscene. One word was regarded in the late-18th and 19th centuries as so shocking that it was variously rendered “inexpressibles“, “indescribables“, “etceteras“, “unmentionables“, “ineffables“, “indispensables“, “innominables” “inexplicables” and “continuations“. That word? “Trousers.”

How things change. By the first world war, soldiers swore so much that the word “fucking” came to function as no more than “a warning that a noun is coming”. Now even the extremest obscenities have lost their power to shock. In Irvine Welsh‘s novels, for instance, “cunt” is more or less a synonym for “bloke”. It is telling that, where for the Romans the genitals were veretrum or verecundum (“parts of awe” or “parts of shame”), “in today’s American slang, the genitalia are devalued as ‘junk'”.

The only actually taboo language is that of racial insult. Words like “wop”, “kike” and “yid” (though not, interestingly, “nigger”) were intended to give offence from the off – but only to those on the receiving end. As Mohr writes, the idea that everybody should find them offensive is a relative innovation. Not, it should be said, a bad one.

Mohr’s scholarship seems to be sound and her approach positively twinkles with pleasure and amusement. She gives her chapters headings such as “Shit, That Bloody Bugger Turned Out To Be A Fucking Nackle-Ass Cocksucker!”, and she’s not above finding it funny that a paper on urinary incontinence was co-authored by Splatt and Weedon.

I’d like Mohr’s account to have tipped a wink to Viz comic’s monumental and still-growing Profanisaurus. Her argument might have been strengthened, too, by reminding us that Eric Cartman, in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, saves the world from Satan and Saddam Hussein with the words: “Fuck, shit, cock, ass, titties, boner, bitch, muff, pussy, cunt, butthole, Barbra Streisand!”

But here I pick nits. This is a cracking fucking book, and innominables to anyone who says otherwise.

Reading Proust: Lost in Translation

By Caroline Weber
May 8, 2013

To resume my discussion [which Sineokov didn’t post] of the French literary references upon which so much of the humor in the Recherche depends, I wanted to provide an example from “The Guermantes Way” (1920), the volume in which the upper-middle-class narrator makes his first foray into Parisian high society. As Anka Muhlstein pointed out in her splendid post yesterday, the members of the aristocratic Guermantes clan “are convinced that they are still at the apex of [that] society,” and Proust has great fun showcasing their petty vanities and elitist pretensions.

In one such instance, he describes the long-standing antipathy between the family’s two branches — the Guermantes proper, for the most part based in Paris, and their largely provincial Courvoisier cousins — and again uses a well-known (to French readers) literary allusion for laughs. The Courvoisiers, he observes, are at once appalled and intimidated by their Guermantes relations’ self-proclaimed intellectualism and unrivaled chic; they cannot forgive their cousins for preferring to hobnob with members of Paris’s flashy, socially questionable “smart” (in both senses of the term) set, whereas the stodgy Courvoisiers feel infinitely more at home socializing with fellow countrified nobles whose background (“who their ‘father and mother’ were”) is no mystery, even if their company is no fun. And so, while the Courvoisiers can’t resist attending their glamorous kinsmen’s social gatherings, in so doing they manifest a mixture of righteous indignation and poorly disguised envy that the narrator, spotting the charmless Courvoisier matron Mme de Villebon in the drawing-room of the supremely (and, to said matron, infuriatingly) elegant Duchesse de Guermantes, clinches by way of an unexpected Victor Hugo quotation:

To encounter in their cousin’s drawing-room, between five and six o’clock, people with whose relatives their own relatives did not like to associate back home in the Perche became for [the Courvoisiers] a source of mounting rage and inexhaustible denunciations. For example, the moment that the charming Comtesse G*** entered the salon, Mme de Villebon’s face assumed exactly the expression it ought to have had if she had been called upon to recite the line

And if only one of us remains, that one will be I [Et s’il n’en reste qu’un, je serai celui-là],

a line that happened to be unknown to her, anyway.

For my money, this is one of the funniest passages in the Recherche, but in translation it falls flat for a few reasons, all related to the line of poetry at the end. First, because non-French readers are almost sure not to know that line themselves — from Hugo’s “Les Châtiments” [“Castigations”] (1853), an extended indictment in verse of Emperor Napoleon III’s overthrow of the French republican government in 1851 — they are unlikely to snicker at Mme de Villebon for sharing in their ignorance. They are also unlikely to grasp the sheer over-the-top weirdness of the parallel the narrator draws (a) between a supercilious killjoy from the Perche (a tiny agricultural region best known for its purebred draft-horses) and the man revered in Proust’s day as France’s greatest poet; not to mention (b) between Mme de Villebon’s petty social hostility toward “the charming Comtesse G***” and Hugo’s lofty, principled outrage at Napoleon III’s coup d’état. (In the poem Proust cites, Hugo is directly addressing the emperor, whose coup sent the staunchly republican poet into exile, and declaring that he will defy Bonapartist authority to the end, even if he proves “the last man standing.”)

Finally, no English translation can capture the intensely stylized, emphatically sonorous grandeur of Hugo’s alexandrine: the twelve-syllable metric form that is to French classical poetry and drama what iambic pentameter is to English verse. To the French ear, nothing says “hero” quite like an alexandrine, and the line Proust quotes here, comprised of four perfect anapests (poetic “feet” in which two unstressed syllables are followed by a stressed one, as in Lord Byron’s similarly rousing “Destruction of Sennacherib” [1815]: “and the sheen of theirspears was like stars on the sea”), is a particularly resonant case in point. And yet there is obviously nothing in the least bit heroic about Mme de Villebon’s prickly pique when confronted with a “charming” Parisian socialite, nor about her self-important resolve to remain “the last man standing” in her fashionable cousin’s salon. By pairing her with Hugo, Proust thus achieves much the same effect he creates with the Françoise/Saint-Simon juxtaposition I discussed yesterday. He gives us a complex, superbly comical portrait of an individual whose all-too-human quirks are best sought and found [recherché and retrouvé] where all Proustian treasures ultimately turn out to reside: in literature.

Ms. Weber is currently at work on a book titled “Proust’s Duchess: In Search of the Exquisite in Belle Époque Paris,” to be published by Knopf in 2014.

A Narrator Who Wins Us

By Adam Gopnik
May 8, 2013

I suppose that by now to announce that I first read Proust with the woman now my wife — or the man now my husband, or the woman now my partner, or however it might work out — is to participate in a cliché, touched by a not-entirely-appealing local color. Only in America has the experience of Proust become a ritual of courtship. But, as it happened, I did.

The girl I was in love with in college and I went out and, in a second-hand bookstore in Montreal, bought the old Random House two-volume version of the Moncrieff translation. What surprised me in that first reading, up on Mount Royal, was not how impressed I was by Proust’s command, the beauty of his sentences and the confidence of his psychological generalizations. It was, rather, that, expecting a profound but slightly forbidding, even “estranging,” literary tour de force, on the order of “Ulysses” or “Paradise Lost” — a text like a mountain to be scaled, with the reader arriving at last wearily at the top, panting for oxygen with a Sherpa-like companion; glad to have made the ascent and yet haunted by the frozen bodies seen fallen short of the summit, those who never made it past “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” — given that expectation, I was shocked by how much I liked Marcel, to give the narrator the name he only once gives himself.

We are taught sternly to announce, and tumidly to lecture our creative writing students, that our favorite characters need not be our favorite people. Good characters, from Becky Sharp to Satan in Milton, can be rotten to the core and still delicious to the bite. But, at the risk of letting the waistband of my bourgeois boxers show too largely above my borrowed modernist pants, I do think that narrators need to win us if they are to hold us. Nick Carraway, Huck Finn, and even poor Charles Ryder — the truth is that just as heroes are better when they are heroic, narrators in long tales are best when we are charmed by their company and are given reasons to trust their sensations. Narrators need not be likeable, in the sense of touched by moral rectitude, but it does seem necessary in any successful full-length tale for the narrator to be lovable — exactly as, say, Humbert Humbert in “Lolita” is lovable, in his own horrible way.

Well, the narrator in Proust — let us defy academic fastidiousness and call him Marcel — struck me then, and strikes me still, as the most high-hearted, self-deprecating, joyously observant, tender, frequently funny, always attentive voice I had encountered in literature. (Far more, doubtless, than Proust would have been himself.) Frankly neurotic in his anxieties, the narrator’s neurosis on the page registers above all as sensitivity, mindfulness. His wide-eyed appreciations illuminate those first volumes with affection: appreciations of his aunt Léonie, of Françoise, the cook, of his Madame Sévigné-loving grandmother, above all of his well-meaning father and loving mother. Even the secondary characters, satiric targets, are on the whole treated with a malice rendered affectionate by understanding: Madame Verdurin is chiefly silly, not wicked; in over her social head.

And are there, in the old-fashioned sense, more admirable characters in literature than Saint-Loup, the aristocrat trying to struggle out of the limitations of his inherited world view without sacrificing its elegance — or, above all, than Swann, whose tragedy in love does not diminish our admiration for his tact, his delicacy, his essential kindness, and his readiness to make himself look shallow in order to avoid betraying a friend? The book is, among other things, a manifesto against malicious speech, and Swann moves us because he understands that true aristocracy lies in a readiness to refrain from malice, even at the price of having others think him simple.

And then there is, well, so much pure Charlie Brown in the narrator’s voice: his worrying desperately in front of the pillar with the poster of Berma’s next appearance about how he will feel when he actually sees her act; his anxieties about Gilberte — the original Little Red-Haired Girl — and her possible presence in the playground on the Champs-Élysées. That he buys his cravat intending to impress her at Charvet rather than at Sears does not diminish the universality of his unrequited ardor.

My first sense, confirmed by two subsequent readings (one, in French, that did indeed have some of the exhausting aspects of an Everest expedition) is that the philosophical and psychological theories registered in the book are the least interesting thing about it, and the charm and humor and social observation evident on every page, the most. Yes, indeed, Proust’s conclusions about human love are sadly persuasive: We invent the people we love as much as we experience them; our infatuations, even those that shape our lives, are our own inventions. And he’s right to advance nostalgia as an organizing principle: we agree with him that time is the first principle of life, devouring our experience, in all its intensity and heartbreak, and leaving us wondering, aghast, not just where life has passed but where the world has gone.

But it’s not the profundity of these ideas that matters. It’s the joy of their enactment, which cuts the edge of Proust’s official pessimism on every page. Joyce, in “Finnegan’s Wake,” another expedition That Woman and I attempted, ends by asserting simply that there is a mountainous male principle in life, and a fluid female one, and life is best when one flows nimbly round the other, as rivers round cities — and one need not endorse this rather old-fashioned, patriarchal Irish view to appreciate the passion, the infinite resourcefulness, of its expression. Great writing, like first love, works best as an obvious idea freshly enacted — an old book, newly bought.

Proust’s Influences

By Anka Muhlstein
May 7, 2013

Anka Muhlstein is the author of many books, most recently “Monsieur Proust’s Library.” Here she writes about the books that influenced Proust.

Proust’s friends claimed that he had read everything and forgotten nothing. As though to prove them right, he never created a character without putting a book in his hands, and he quotes abundantly from and alludes often to his favorite writers. It would help the reader of Proust to know the Balzac novels that pop up throughout “In Search of Lost Time”: “Father Goriot,” “Lost Illusions,” “The Girl With the Golden Eyes.” These are the novels that deal with the “uncommon passions” so important to the understanding of Proust’s homosexual characters.

Saint-Simon’s 40 volumes of memoirs of the court of Louis XIV are not required reading, but it is useful to read a few excerpts to get a taste of what the irritable French duke considered his due, and of how desperate he was to conserve his privileges. The Guermantes in “In Search of Lost Time,” who resent any ignoring of their illustrious past and are convinced that they are still at the apex of French society despite the changes brought about by the Revolution, owe a lot to Proust’s knowledge of Saint-Simon.

To seize the full flavor of the comical way Proust uses the playwright Jean Racine’s tragedies in his conflation of Jews and homosexuals, one might also read Racine’s biblical plays “Esther” and “Athalie.”

Proust’s use of French writers is straightforward and easy to detect. This is not true of his use of foreign writers: their significance is hidden, almost subterranean, and often overlooked. Yet their presence is the clearest sign of Proust’s amazing erudition. No writers had as firm a hold on Proust as English or American essayists and novelists, but he could not use them as directly or freely as French authors; he knew his French readers were most likely not as familiar with works of English literature, and perhaps not familiar with them at all.

One of Proust’s favorite novelists, one whose books reduced him to tears, was George Eliot. He read “Middlemarch” very carefully and absorbed the drama of Mr. Casaubon, the unhappy clergyman who dedicates his whole life — sacrificing on the way his young wife — to labors that produced absurd and trivial results. Proust’s narrator is anxiously searching for his true vocation, and is very much aware of the danger of losing his way in a desert of sterile and doomed tasks.

One may not think of Robert Louis Stevenson in connection with Proust, but Proust loved his work, especially “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The curious transformation of a kind and intelligent physician who turns into a psychopathic monster after imbibing a drug intended to separate the good from the evil in a person is an extreme example of personality change, a theme that runs through Proust’s novel. His characters never reveal their true personalities at the outset, and as the novel progresses they do the contrary of what one expects.

A careful reader, however, may avoid being taken by surprise. As a young man, Proust loved detective stories. Although he never wrote thrillers, he knew how to prepare his reader for a revelation by seeding a clue beforehand. Alas the reader may lose track in the thousands of pages separating the hint from the dénouement. The only remedy is to keep reading and rereading Proust!

Reading Proust: A First-Timer Dives In

By John Williams
May 6, 2013

Sam and Caroline, it was my brilliant idea to tackle “Swann’s Way” for the first time as part of this enterprise. After reading your opening posts, you’ll understand if I feel like I decided to take up basketball by playing a full-court pickup game with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. My original goal was to complement your expertise with a set of fresh, eager eyes. Now I’m just afraid of getting dunked on.

I’m about 200 pages in, and hooked in a way I hadn’t expected. I thought gaining a foothold would take some doing. And it did. But as with any great work, it doesn’t take very long to acclimate to Proust’s rhythms and idiosyncrasies. This is not to say the reading experiencepicks up steam. A nearly extinct brand of patience is required. The pages don’t start turning any faster; I’m just more and more content to be immersed in them.

Like many who haven’t read the book, I had pictured the madeleine moment as a moment, but it’s not; it’s an extended scene that reads like a psychology textbook in miniature. It begins in a way that recalls the “oceanic feeling” described by the French writer Romain Rolland and discussed at length by Freud in “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Freud criticized the sensation as a vague helplessness that serves as a shaky foundation for religious belief, but in Proust the helplessness, stayed with, resolves into clarity. First there is the sense of being overwhelmed. (“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” “I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”) Then the narrator attempts, in vain, to recreate the moment through his senses. (“I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic.”) What follows is an inner concentration that borders on meditation. (“I ask my mind to make one further effort, to bring back once more the fleeting sensation. And so that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention against the sounds from the next room.”) After several attempts at this deep diving, the narrator gives up, and it’s only then that the memories so faintly summoned by the madeleine and tea fully return.

Having known the madeleine scene as shorthand for Proustian experience, I was surprised by the specificity of the ensuing recollection of his youth. There’s a lot of oceanic feeling in the book, but there’s a lot of inspecting individual grains of sand on the beach as well.

I’m hesitant to address Beckett’s remarks without reading the whole of his slim book (and with, oh, 3,200 pages to go in Proust), but “complete indifference to moral values and human justices” seems an odd judgment. If he means Proust ignored taboos — well, based on your descriptions of the later volumes, he clearly did. But I have the sense that some amount of moral discernment is at work in the book, even if it’s not of the hectoring variety, and even if the characters aren’t the most empathetic lot. I think here of the great description of the servant Françoise: “I came to recognize that, apart from her own kinsfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself. The tears that flowed from her in torrents when she read in a newspaper of the misfortunes of persons unknown to her were quickly stemmed once she had been able to form a more precise mental picture of the victims.” In this scene, Françoise is impatient with a kitchen-maid suffering great pain right in front of her, but is found a short time later “violently sobbing” while reading about the similar symptoms of a faceless “prototype patient” in a medical dictionary.

And it’s true that the narrator writes: “I imagined, like everyone else, that the brains of other people were lifeless and submissive receptacles with no power of specific reaction to anything that might be introduced into them…” (That “like everyone else” is quite a clause.) This is not a statement of great moral attunement. But I’m not sure a conscious effort at the “moral education of the reader” is always the top priority — or effect — of fiction. If close observation is its own moral instruction, then Proust (as far as I’ve gotten with him) is as conscientious an instructor as any.

I’m reading the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation. Caroline, how close do any of the translations come to capturing the feeling of the original? Are English readers doomed to have an inferior encounter with Proust? And to both of you: Where do you see Proust’s influence now? It may be impossible to measure up, but is anyone even trying? Of the modernists, is Proust the least mimicked today? I have been sometimes reminded while reading of certain David Foster Wallace sentences, which are less lapidary but equally serpentine, and that also land on punch lines that are subtly hilarious, if there is such a category. Like this, from “Infinite Jest”:

He’d kept noticing mice scurrying around his room, mice as in rodents, vermin, and when he lodged a complaint and demanded the room be fumigated at once and then began running around hunched and pounding with the heel of a hand-held Florsheim at the mice as they continued to ooze through the room’s electrical outlets and scurry repulsively about, eventually a gentle-faced nurse flanked by large men in custodial whites negotiated a trade of shoes for Librium, predicting that the mild sedative would fumigate what really needed to be fumigated.

Who, if anyone, do you see as Proust’s progeny?

Reading Proust: The Recherche in an Extra-Moral Sense

By Caroline Weber
May 3, 2013

Beckett is absolutely right to stress the “shamelessness” of the Recherche (1913-1927), though it was by no means the first French novel to evince this quality. Already in “Dangerous Liaisons” (1782), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos had subverted the genre’s morally edifying function by prefacing his cool-as-a-cucumber tale of unabashed libertine depravity with a mock-conciliatory note: “At very least, it seems to me a service to public morality to unmask the means by which the wicked corrupt the good.” This proviso did not deter the vice squad from forbidding Parisians to read Laclos’s novel in public places. Similarly, Gustave Flaubert stood trial for “offending public morality” with “Madame Bovary” (1857), a meticulously observed portrait of a vacuous, petite-bourgeoise adulteress.

Like these antecedents, the Recherche offers an unvarnished, markedly non-judgmental portrayal of sexual activities traditionally deplored as vices or even — in the context of French Catholicism — as sins. As the title of his novel’s fourth volume, “Sodom and Gommorah” (1921-1922), makes clear, male and female homosexuality are essential to Proust’s worldview, generally surfacing alongside other so-called perversions. While seducing her girlfriend, Mlle Vinteuil desecrates her late father’s portrait; the Prince de Guermantes and the Marquis de Saint-Loup both cheat on their wives with the gigolo-cum-violinist Morel; another Morel paramour, the Baron de Charlus, also indulges in whips-and-chains sex play at a tawdry gay brothel.

Yet no matter how shocking the content of these vignettes (André Gide, Proust’s contemporary and fellow “invert,” feared they would “set back the issue [of homosexuality] by 20 years”), their real import relates less to sex as such, as to the much farther-reaching moral subversion that Proust effects by rigorously investigating humanity’s most essential but elusive “enigmatic truths” — erotic and otherwise. (In the Proustian cosmos, these truths provide the “scattered lightning-flashes” to which Sam so eloquently alludes in his post.) As outlined in “Time Regained” (1927), the seventh and final volume of the Recherche, the novelist’s foremost task lies in “teasing out and illuminating our feelings, our passions; which is to say, the passions and feelings of humanity as a whole.” According to Proust, those passions and feelings operate according to “general laws” that remain constant even when surface particularities are different; for instance, even the seemingly unconscionable penchants of a Charlus illustrate a truth with which we all, sooner or later, are forced to reckon: that love can come to us in the most extravagantly improbable, inexplicable and inconvenient forms. (Witness the eponymous hero of “Swann’s Way,” declaring at what he mistakenly believes to be the end of his disastrous affair with the faithless Odette: “To think that I wasted years of my life,…[and] felt the greatest love I’ve ever known, for a woman whom I didn’t even find attractive, who wasn’t my type!”)

In this light, the writer’s work is important because it alone enables us to penetrate the thick fog of perceptual laziness and distraction and delusion that otherwise blinds us to the truth about ourselves and those around us. And it can only perform that function if its vision is undistorted by the author’s own moral judgments, whether favorable or condemnatory; what Beckett calls a “complete indifference to moral values and human justices” is thus a, even the, necessary precondition of the Proustian enterprise. In fact, Beckett’s observation echoes that of one of Proust’s earliest German translators, Walter Benjamin, who notes in a 1929 essay that

[t]here is no individual suffering, however revolting, and no social injustice, however glaring, against which Proust would have protested with a candid “No” or an intrepid “But wait!” Quite the opposite: we find in him a profound acceptance of the world just as it is, even in its saddest and most bestial manifestations.

More often than not, the world of the Recherche proves sad and bestial indeed. And yet the writer himself cannot be faulted if its hard-won insights make it appear — to borrow Proust’s own ironic epithet for Laclos’s “Dangerous Liaisons” — “the most frighteningly perverse of books.” That perversity is simply the chaff from which the novelist endeavors, fearlessly and tirelessly, to separate the wheat of elemental human nature. Put another way, Proust explains:

It was not the goodness of his virtuous heart, which happened to be considerable, that made Choderlos de Laclos write “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” nor his fondness for the bourgeoisie, petite or grande, that prompted Flaubert to choose Mme Bovary as his subject…

These authors selected their material not because they were immoral, but because they sought the truth; and so it is with Proust as well. For this reason, he concludes:

The vulgar reader is wrong to think the author wicked, for in any given, ridiculous aspect [of human behavior], the artist sees a beautiful generality; and he no more faults his subject for being ridiculous than a surgeon looks down on a patient for being afflicted with persistent circulation problems.

The son and the brother of noted surgeons, Marcel Proust knew whereof he spoke: in literature, as in medicine, there is no place for shame. Or as Flaubert — who was also a doctor’s son, and whose exacting prose style, likened by at least one critic to a scalpel, Proust brilliantly parodied in his 1919 volume of literary pastiches — remarked just before his obscenity trial: “Writing well is its own kind of immorality.”

When Proust Came to Teaneck

By Brian Morton
May 3, 2013

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Swann’s Way,” The Times asked writers and critics to share their experience of reading the book and the other volumes of “In Search of Lost Time.”

When “Remembrance of Things Past” first reached American and English readers, everybody was blown away. Edith Wharton said it deserved to be ranked alongside the work of Tolstoy and Shakespeare. E.M. Forster called it “our second greatest novel,” after “War and Peace.” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.” She continued: “One has to put the book down and gasp.”

About 50 years later, when Proust reached Teaneck High School, we were blown away, too. After a friend who’d spent his junior year in France came back with news about a novel that was different from anything we’d read before, I embarked on “Swann’s Way.” I loved everything about it: the patience with which the narrator, Marcel, investigates his perceptions; the evocation of the sorrow to which a child can be reduced by disturbances so apparently slight that the adults around him don’t even notice them; and, of course, the passage my friend had been especially excited about, in which a pastry dipped in tea opens up Marcel’s entire past (a passage that never gets old, no matter how many times you read it, and that proves for all time that a novel can bring worlds to life in a way that makes movies look lumbering and confined).

And I loved the humor, which is far from the delicate indirectness that comes to mind when many people think of Proust: the socialite so fond of showing off her big loud laugh that she dislocates her jaw; the aunts who’ve received a gift from Swann, and whose fear of vulgarity leads them to thank him in such a subtle way that he doesn’t realize he’s being thanked; Swann himself, who, after spending years in a state of such obsession for a woman that he neglected everything else in his life, comes to the conclusion that she “wasn’t even my type.”

But finally I got bogged down. It might have been in the second volume, during the analysis of Marcel’s love of Gilberte, which recapitulates many of the features of Swann’s love of Odette, but at a lower level of dramatic and intellectual intensity. Or maybe it was in the third, during the account of a Guermantes dinner party, which, now that I check, is only about a hundred pages long, but which seems to go on forever . . . would it be philistine to suggest that it would be a service to literature if someone were to put together an Abridged Proust?

I’ve gone back to Proust many times since then, and never reached the end. I blame this on a tic that has led me, every time, to start over from the beginning. I read a thousand pages, two thousand, and then, yet again, I stop. I feel like a suburban Sisyphus, pushing the seven volumes of “Remembrance of Things Past” up the hill.

Not quite Proust-worthy though I may be, I like to teach the first volume to writing students. I begin in a spirit of full disclosure, telling my class that I haven’t finished the damned thing. (As a teacher you’re often tempted to pretend to be more literate than you are, but everything goes better if you don’t.) One of the pleasures of reading Proust with writing students is that he breaks every one of the silly “rules” that have come to be enshrined in many writing programs. Conventional wisdom holds that we should “show, not tell,” but Proust tells and tells and tells. Conventional wisdom holds that point of view in fiction should always be consistent and logical, but Proust (like Melville, like Dickens) does what he pleases with point of view. Very early in “Swann’s Way,” Marcel tells us that he often used to lie awake remembering “all the places and people I had known, what I had actually seen of them, and what others had told me,” and with that slim phrase he gives himself license to tell us exactly what other people were thinking in their most intimate moments, during episodes that took place before he was born.

Many of my students have gone on to read the whole thing, disproving the idea that today’s young people are too distracted to read anything but tweets. One old student likes to e-mail me snippets from the last two volumes, magnificent passages about art and time and memory that I haven’t gotten to yet. I’m not sure if this is meant to inspire me or tease me. It doesn’t matter. I know I’ll get to the end someday. I will. I will. I will.

Reading Proust: An Introduction

By Sam Tanenhaus
May 2, 2013

proust 1896

c. 1896

One hundred years after its publication, “Swann’s Way,” the first volume in Marcel Proust’s cycle “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” — “In Search of Lost Time,” better known to many Anglophone readers as “Remembrance of Things Past,” the Shakespearian title used by Proust’s first English translator — doubles as thematic “overture” and Michelin guide to the most captivating, ambitious and elusive of modern novels.

The glittering surface of “Swann’s Way” presents a Manet-like canvas of belle époque France, a sumptuous world of fashionable salons and tranquil summer homes populated by characters — old and young, rich and poor, artists and aristocrats, footmen and physicians — who spring at us with comic ferocity: their sufferings and delusions, their petty cruelties, their self-destructive obsessions and corrosive vanities. By the end of the giant cycle (some 4,000 pages) these fictitious beings will seem realer than the members of one’s own family.

But within the space of far fewer pages, 200 or so, the reader grasps, just as readers did in 1913, that Proust is a novelist of limitless talent: a preternatural observer, inspired mimic, prodigious wit, fluent narrator, ingenious coiner of images and words. And he knows everything, sounding at times like a botanist, at others like a painter, architectural historian, musicologist, literary theorist. He seems to have read every book, seen every play, and absorbed the contents of entire museums along with the principles of medicine, diplomacy, etymology and more.

Yet all this only touches the outskirts of Proust’s herculean purpose. As the sinuous sentences unfold, aphorism following insight, metaphor converted into syllogism, we realize Proust is as rigorous a thinker as he is fabulist, heir to Descartes, companion to Freud. He is not “simply” writing a novel. He is bending the girders of an inherited form into a new science of understanding. He means to unlock the “laws” of human psychology — of hidden motive, desire and crippling habit — and so perhaps arrest, if not defeat, the ravages of “Time.”

We know this is his intent because he frankly tells us so. The novel’s narrator addresses us with the brazen directness of our own moment’s memoirists, though Proust is strangely self-effacing, even his terrifying omniscience grounded in his repeated insistence that he really knows nothing at all.

Inevitably, the first pages of “Swann’s Way” announce that the grand investigation to come must be autobiographical and must begin in childhood, for the impressions gleaned then will determine a lifetime of tiny misconstruals and fatal miscalculations, of revelations that would not surprise us, and they do each time, if only Proust, and we, had been paying closer attention.

These first pages also set forth Proust’s theory of “involuntary memory,” encapsulated in the famous incident of the madeleine soaked in tea. When the narrator presses the spoon to his lips, the sensation looses a tactile flood that transports him to the past — not the known but the latent or repressed past, hitherto concealed from him by the organized recollections of “voluntary” or conscious memory, the prison of falsehood each of us constructs in the effort, we think, to uncover the truth, though in fact it only makes it more elusive. Not that “involuntary memory,” the morsel of tasted cake, makes Proust the master of reality. On the contrary, he is allotted only flickering glimpses, which will accost him unpredictably and, often, woundingly.

“Swann’s Way” and the six novels that follow can be read as the mounting sequence of these glimpses. Everything else, in the rich and varied universe Proust has invented, exists only as the stage for these scattered lightning-flashes. The most cerebral of writers, Proust seeks finally to free himself, and us, from the shackles of intellect and reason.

But what is the cost of this search for understanding, this attempt to possess, or “recapture,” lost time? In his brilliant, cryptic little book “Proust” (1931), Samuel Beckett argued that the author exhibits

complete indifference to moral values and human justices. Flower and plant have no conscious will. They are shameless, exposing their genitals. And so in a sense are Proust’s men and women, whose will is blind and hard, but never self-conscious, never abolished in the pure perception of a pure subject. They are victims of their volition, active with a grotesquely predetermined activity, within the narrow limits of an impure world. But shameless. There is no question of right and wrong.

If Beckett is right, then Proust has repudiated what some maintain is the novel’s most honored function, the moral education of the reader. What do you — panelists and commentators alike — think?

Everything in your past—and future—is encoded in the digits of pi

By Evelyn Lamb

pi life

“Pi is an infinite, nonrepeating decimal – meaning that every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi. Converted into ASCII text, somewhere in that infinite string of digits is the name of every person you will ever love, the date, time, and manner of your death, and the answers to all the great questions of the universe. Converted into a bitmap, somewhere in that infinite string of digits is a pixel-perfect representation of the first thing you saw on this earth, the last thing you will see before your life leaves you, and all the moments, momentous and mundane, that will occur between those two points.

All information that has ever existed or will ever exist, the DNA of every being in the universe, EVERYTHING: all contained in the ratio of a circumference and a diameter.”

From what I can tell, this meme comes from Redditor kenfoldsfive’s answer to the question, “Reddit, what’s the most mind-blowing sentence you can think of?” It’s been bouncing around the Internet for several months now and got a little boost recently when George Takei’s Facebook page shared it with nearly 4 million followers earlier this month. It certainly is a mind-blowing idea! Infinity is always hard for our puny finite brains to handle, and I admit that the vastness of irrational numbers blows my mind whenever I accidentally think about it for too long. We’re talking about a number that encodes not only my life story, but also a version in which my fly wasn’t down the first time I taught a class.

The only problem is, it isn’t true. Or, it’s probably true, but we don’t know for sure, and get off my lawn. At least that’s what the Huffington Post said last week. (On Tuesday it posted a more cheerful story about pi with some interesting illustrations.) The article makes some good points, but I think it misses the forest for the trees. If you look at it the right way, pi really does have it all.

The sticking point is the first assertion of the meme: Does pi contain every possible finite combination of digits? All irrational numbers, including pi, have infinite, nonrepeating decimal representations, but this is not enough to ensure that they include all strings. For example, 0.1010010001 … is a perfectly acceptable irrational number, and it never even includes the digit 2.

In an edit to the original post, kenfoldsfive notes that the statement is true if pi is a “normal number,” meaning that every finite string occurs with exactly the frequency you’d expect if the digits were random. For example, 10 percent of digits are 1s, 10 percent are 2s, and so on. (This is for numbers written in base 10. Normality can be defined for binary, hexadecimal, or any other base.) In 1909, mathematician Émile Borel proved that “almost every” real number is normal. The mathematical meaning of “almost every” is more extreme than the typical English meaning. Borel showed that there is basically a 0 percent chance that if you pick a real number truly randomly, you’ll get one that isn’t normal.

For this reason and analysis of the first few trillion digits of pi, most people who care about such things believe that pi is indeed normal. There’s no reason to think it isn’t, except that no one has proved it yet. There’s a lot we don’t know about pi. After all, we only know 10 trillion digits of it, a mere speck in the grand scheme of things. We don’t even know whether every digit appears infinitely often. Maybe there are only 101,000 7s.

But the focus on whether or not pi is normal misses an interesting question: Exactly how would we translate an irrational number into a bunch of text? At its heart, the meme is saying that there is something essentially infinite about irrationality that can be used to represent everything contained in our finite world. And that’s right, if you choose your “code” correctly.

The meme suggests ASCII, a method of rendering characters using either seven or eight binary digits. (There is a decimal version as well.) Ignoring some technical details about how ASCII is really implemented, let’s pretend that every two-digit combination from 00 to 99 encodes a different letter, number, space, or punctuation mark. Then we just go through the digits of pi two at a time and get some string of symbols out. If pi is normal, your life story is in there somewhere.

But there’s nothing essential about this method of coding. My friend David Ralston at the mathematics department of SUNY Old Westbury, told me about a different way to extract text from numbers.

Let’s say you want to find your life story in pi. We’ll assume your life story isn’t going to take up more room than the Bible, around 3.5 million characters in English, according to this guy’s grandfather. Close enough for me. (You can pick any upper limit to the number of characters you think you’ll need; the process can handle any number.) Now you need to make a list of all possible words that are no more than 3.5 million characters long. I’d recommend writing all the one-letter words first, followed by all the two-letter words, and so on, using alphabetical order at each step. This gives you some huge but still finite list of possible words—let’s say K is the number of them.

What we need now is a way to assign each word on this list to a unique chunk of information that appears in pi. In other words, we need to find at least K distinct “things” in the number pi. To do this, we exploit the fact that for any irrational number, there are at least K+1 distinct strings that are K digits long. For example, if you look for strings that are two digits long in the irrational number 0.101001000100001 … , you will find three strings: 10, 01, and 00. For strings of three digits, you will find at least four examples.

Using this fact, we look at the digits of pi in chunks of length K. To the first chunk, assign the first word on your list. To the second distinct chunk (which may overlap with the first; that’s OK), assign the second word, and so on. We “only” have K words on our list, and we have at least K+1 distinct blocks of length K, so we’ll run out of words before we run out of blocks. If we have more distinct blocks than we have words on our list (we will), we can just start over at the beginning of our list of words. There’s nothing wrong with encoding the same word twice. That will happen anyway because some K-digit blocks will show up multiple (and even infinitely many) times.

This process is not as straightforward as ASCII coding, but for any given irrational number, it gives us all possible strings up to some finite length. It might feel like cheating because we’ve specified what we want to find. But I think it’s like finding a needle in a haystack: It’s not going to happen if you’re not looking for needles. And there is no upper limit to how long the things on your list can be, Ralston wrote in an email. It could be, “for example, all strings whose length is not larger than the number of elementary particles in the observable universe, which is (I think) a reasonable restriction to place on ‘all possible words,’ and includes the binary code for a very high-resolution JPEG of that awkward moment from your senior prom.”

We don’t know for sure that pi contains all possible strings of decimal digits, but on a deeper level, the meme is right. And if it gets you pondering the mysteries of infinity, so much the better. You won’t be alone. The idea that monkeys sitting at a typewriter would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare has been around for decades. To continue bending your mind, I recommend these variations on the theme. Jorge Luis Borges explores the darker side of the concept in his short story The Library of Babel, and the always entertaining Vi Hart’s video for Pi Day 2012 tackles the question, “Are Shakespeare’s Plays Encoded in Pi?” Enjoy!