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.