Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Half of all Statistics are Bayesian

Abstract: A metadata analysis was performed on the reliability of statistics, using Google Search. The methodology employed was a biased sampling using the first one hundred occurrences of the phrase "of all statistics are"; given the documented link precedence utilized by Google, this was taken as representative of the approximately 71,300 primary instances of the phrase. Of these, 95 (95%) included a percentage figure and an assessment (the remainder only contained the phrase in links, excepting the first such, from the UN Office of the Under-Secretary-General: "First of all, statistics are generally recognized as one of the cornerstones of national and international policies.")

The assessment was, in the vast majority of cases (75%), "made up". Equivalent categorizations (fabricated, invented, ...) accounted for another 10% of the observations, while half the remainder were "worthless", the other half similarly equivalent (useless, wrong ...). Most estimations of the proportion of statistics that fell into these categories were to 2-3 significant digits, though a high degree of precision was implied in a handful of cases. Fractional representation was not employed (in the full sample, "half" appears only once).

The observed proportion to which these assessments applied varied from a minimum of 36% to a maximum of 99.9%, with a mean of 70% and a standard deviation of 21% (with the usual caveats regarding employing Gaussian measures to bounded ranges). The overall empirical distribution displayed a strong mode at approximately 42.7% ("made up on the spot") to 43% ("worthless"), and curiously no observations at all between 48% and 61%; a minor second mode was evident at 98%. The subsample comprising "made up" statistics dominated these results (mean 71% stnd dev 21%), though with a propensity for those "made up on the spot" to cluster at the lower end of the distribution.

Given the uniformity of the assessments above, it was determined that no further statistics need be derived to confirm the validity of this analysis.


Hello I must be going

My reading over the past fortnight was confined to books that had been remaindered to my custody by bookculture, one of which had been put on my most wanted list by another book going under the same alias, The Lost Steps: I'd pled nolo contendere on Carpentier's sentence rendering here back in December, but having submitted to its appeal, I will reopen the case with my initial reactions from a LatAmLit bookchat that took it up (though that discussion stutter-stepped into incoherence [despite good individual commentaries] as the participants couldn't get on to the same page):

Disorientation: Narrative shifts from stage to backstage include displacements in time. Story moves forward as subject goes backwards (and movement westward is another etymology for disorienting): this is an anti-modernist tract in modernist drag. The critic turned upon himself, the mask depicting a mask slipping to reveal a mask. The narrator's misdirections are difficult to resolve, unreliability not necessarily of motive. There's a lot to say about time, music, creativity, and how each is reflected in the unfolding of the narrative itself, but it can wait ... Aside from the malleability of time, this strikes me as apart from magic realism (2x13 ways of looking at MR), perhaps because the perspective is from outside, unattained. The opposition to Surrealism is real enough though, and taking on the fashions and fascisms of the time is no surprise, but Nietzsche and especially Ludwig van get a bum rap (maybe it's that Ludovico thang)—I said anti-modernist already, but it's also anti-decadent, with a sort of Rousseauic flavor. Perhaps it's the anti-Heart-of-Darkness. The Lost Steps strikes me as quite distinct from The Kingdom of this World (the phrase occurs twice, once midway through and once near the end) primarily due to the protagonist's viewpoint. Ti Noël directly experiences what our current narrator merely mediates, the veneer of civilization running so deep in him, holding him back from what he thinks he wants. There's also an insane jealousy about him. These combined to make me wonder to what extent TLS is a specific critique upon Rousseau (ed: cf Reveries of a Solitary Walker).

The anti-surreal indictment, which identified a prime suspect, was prepared by Timothy Brennan's introduction to Harriet de Onis' translation:

Perhaps none of Carpentier's fiction [...] was a more decisive repudiation of the pretenses of surrealism, which had occupied him and his international circle of Parisian friends between 1928 and 1939.
The title itself is an allusion to André Breton's volume of essays,
Les pas perdus (1924), which means, significantly, both "the lost steps" and "the not lost." As if to make the most of the latter meaning, Carpentier set out to stress that Breton's book had been the sort of evasion that an intellectual from the colonies might best overcome. Breton had written contemptuously of the "ridiculous condition of existence here below" and counseled that we all remain unattached "in a state of perfect disponibilité (availability)." We understand Carpentier when we grasp how much he hated those words, smacking as they do of a bourgeois European effeteness. Throughout the 1950s Carpentier sought to make good on his years of self-training in the study of the Americas—a training prompted by his own simmering resentments over the previous two decades as he watched politics and magic coalesce in the creative minds of the European avant-garde. Since at least the late 1930s he had been trying to make the point that without knowing it, the avant-garde was only whoring after a surrealism found fully formed in the Cuban babalaos and the village shamans of the Latin American continent.

I don't dispute the verdict about what became of surrealism in the thirties and beyond, but the evidence from Breton's original brief now having been examined, I see Carpentier retracing the steps that Breton took away from Dada, steps that had to be taken even if later taken back. Les pas perdus (trans Mark Polizzotti, University of Nebraska Press) is a seminal document of protoSurrealism, with all its promise intact; it prefigures the narrator's journey, and the narration, that Carpentier relates in his version. I take as a point of departure more prefactory commentary, supplied here by Mary Ann Caws and supplemented by the translator:

It is against any settling at all that the essays of The Lost Steps are assembled, the idea of wandering and meandering already expressing the state of expectation that characterizes Surrealism at its best. This work is the perfect prefiguration of the waiting state, even as it is the perfect prefiguration of a transition. The essay most nearly approximating Breton's open state of mind announces a general departure: "Leave Everything"—a phrase appropriate for train stations like Gare de Lyon, where, to use the memorable image that Breton will later offer, the train is always shaking with convulsive beauty, always just about to leave. [MAC]
Actually the title—Les pas perdus in the original—evokes not so much loss (although this, too, is present) as aimlessness, it inevitably recalls for its French audience the locution salle des pas perdus, the waiting room of a train station, where expectant travelers errantly pace. Like many of Breton's titles, this one acts as a billboard: the following writings, individually and as a whole, form above all a record of imminent departure. [MP]

Or perhaps immanent.

But enough of hearsay. Witness the conclusion of "Leaving Everything":

Leave everything.
Leave Dada.
Leave your wife, leave your mistress.
Leave your hopes and fears.
Drop your kids in the middle of nowhere.
Leave the substance for the shadow.
Leave behind, if need be, your comfortable life and promising future.
Take to the highways.

Breton also provides ample testimony implicating his co-conspirators. But it's time to move on to the parole hearing ("Words without Wrinkles"):

We are beginning to distrust words; we were suddenly noticing that they had to be treated other than as the little auxiliaries for which they had always been taken. Some thought that they had become worn down from having served so much; others, that by their essence they could legitimately aspire to a condition other than the one they had—in short, we had to free them. The "alchemy of the verb" had been superseded by a veritable chemistry that first and foremost had puts its energies into disengaging the properties of these words; of these properties, only one—meaning—was specified by the dictionary. It was a matter (1) of considerinh the word in itself and (2) of examining as closely as possible the reactions words could have to each other. Only at this price could we hope to restore language's true destination, which for some (myself included) promised to take knowledge a giant leap forward, and exalt life by as much. We thereby lay ourselves open to the usual persecutions in a domain where good (good usage) consists mainly in remembering the etymologies of words, in other words, their deadest weight, and in making the sentence conform to a mediocre and utilitarian syntax, where everything is in agreement with paltry human conservatism and with a loathing of the infinite that never wastes an opportunity to show its face. Naturally such an enterprise, which is part of the poetic impulse, does not demand so much clear will from each of those who take part in it; one does not always have to formulate a need in order to satisfy it. And my intent here is only to develop an image.

It was by assigning color to vowels that for the first time, consciously and in full knowledge of the consequences, someone turned the word away from its duty to signify. That day it emerged into concrete existence, such as no one had ever suspected it might have. There is no point in debating the exactness of the phenomenon of colored audition, on which I will be sure not to rely. The important thing is that the alarm has been sounded and that from now on it seems imprudent to speculate about the innocence of words. We now know that, all in all, they have a sonority that is sometimes quite complex; moreover, they have tempted painter's brushes, and very soon we will be studying their architectural side. This is a small, intractable world over which we can float only the most insufficient surveillance balloons and in which, even so, we occasionally spot some flagrant violations. In fact, the expression of an idea depends as much on a word's aspect as on its meaning. There are words that work against the idea they are claiming to express. Indeed, even the meaning of words is not always pure, and we are nowhere near determining to what degree the figurative sense progressively acts on the literal sense, each variation in the latter supposedly entailing a variation in the former.


Modulo the rest of the remaindered reading:

Alberto Savinio, The Lives of the God (trans James Brook & Susan Etlinger, Atlas): Doomed to be an echo of the other brother, Chirico, though their paths diverged. These Surrealist writings probably don't do him justice; curiously, like Carpentier, he had his stint as music critic as well. (more, and better)

Joseph Roth, The Legend of the Holy Drinker (trans Michael Hofmann, Granta): Last words—one for the road.


The Original of Laura

The fate of Nabokov's last, unfinished novel has been a hot issue of late (yes well it's obligatory, all this to burn or not to burn folderol), sparked (OK I'll stop) by Ron Rosenbaum on Slate. My interest in The Original of Laura is in better understanding the methods of construction of a master craftsman, as one aspect of my larger interest in literature is in how things are made, and how this is integral to the final product (which then becomes foundational material for future construction, both for writers and readers; cf prior post); I have little interest in manufactured controversy. But in the particular case of Nabokov, a coincidence of interests have made the ephemera more attractive, as I've even built additions (well, lean-tos) on other incomplete work (the metaphor of the chess problem has some force as regards publishing draft material; the intended solution has to work [be sound] and be properly framed, put into context, made interesting). Rosenbaum's latest installment includes second-hand reports on what TOOL's all about (as well as a more interesting colloquium on its fate); these deserve more extensive quotation than he afforded {his extracts curliqued}:

"Brushing through 'veiled values and translucent undertones': Nabokov’s pictorial approach to women", Lara Delage-Toriel, Transatlantica 2006-1 (Apr 6 2006)

In his last unfinished, and supposedly testamentary, novel, The Original of Laura, this type of vertiginous mise en abyme becomes a ruling narrative principle. Like a Möbius strip or an Escher print, the manuscript’s involuted plot expands upon the ambivalence of the sign inscribed within its very title. The referential indetermination of “original” and “Laura” is indeed refracted by a complex matrioshka-type of narrative in which pictorial and literary representations appear to mirror each other and thus unhinge the classical foundations of mimesis. {Its central female character seems to be Flora, the wife of the narrator and, most likely, the ‘original’ of Laura, who is the eponymous heroine of a novel titled My Laura. This novel is sent to the narrator and main protagonist of The Original of Laura by a painter, a rejected admirer of his wife, Flora, of whom “he did an exquisite oil a few years ago.” In My Laura, the mistress is less lucky: she is destroyed by the “I” of the book whilst “in the act of portraying her”—‘literally’, as a writer. Apparently “the portrait is a faithful one,” its features being “absolutely true to the original.” Our desire to peer through the frame—like the unfortunate protagonist of Nabokov’s short story ‘La Veneziana’—is thwarted by the elusive nature of this ‘original’: does it refer to the mistress of the “I,” the Laura of My Laura, or to the probable mistress of this novel’s author, the Flora of The Original of Laura? The manuscript’s playful juxtapositions obviously incite the reader to fuse both ‘originals’ into a single original, a gesture which Nabokov graphically performs in ‘chapter’ 5, by contriving an amusing hybrid, ‘Flaura’. On close observation of the manuscript, one notices that the name contains in fact two capital letters, ‘F’ and ‘L’, as though Nabokov had been loath to give precedence to either name and had instead opted for some typographical monster, a bicephalous cipher of sorts.}

Nabokov’s dove-tailing conundrums become even more artfully significant when we consider the fact that portraits of courtisanes called Flora or Laura are well-known masterpieces by such Renaissance artists as Titian and Giorgione and already constitute variations on the theme of Petrarch’s Laura.

The watermarked presence of these artists beneath the surface of his text is another feat in Nabokov’s chiaroscuro deftness of touch. The adjectives “veiled” and “translucent” which Nabokov selected to define chiaroscuro in Pnin suggest nuances that may be either conspicuous or concealed, depending on the way they catch the light or the angle from which they are perceived. But the visibility of these nuances is equally tributary of the degree of saturation with which the artist endows them; he can shade them in to reveal a veiled value, or shade them off to convey a muted glimmer-effect, a “translucent undertone.” When I first referred to chiaroscuro, I explained that it was a device contrived by Leonardo da Vinci to create an illusion of volume on a flat surface. Chiaroscuro is thus intimately linked to the deceptive quality of art. When addressing fledgling artists in his treatise on painting, Leonardo also singles out indirection as a paramount virtue: “Light too conspicuously cut off by shadows is exceedingly disapproved by painters […]; do not make your figures appear illuminated by the sun, but contrive a certain amount of mist or of transparent cloud to be placed between the object and the sun.” It is particularly significant that Leonardo should mention a “transparent cloud,” as though the old master’s phrase were foreshadowing Nabokov’s own terms. It induces the same type of shimmer-effect, designating, like the “veiled”/ “translucent” couple, a screening device that may at once conceal and reveal.

In this respect, the convoluted structure of The Original of Laura, with its web of metatextual allusions and its iridescent play on “original,” could be considered an elaborate bow to the subtle art of the Renaissance. The manuscript depicts various portraits of a deceitful woman, each of them faithful, each of them mere images, offered to the viewer’s appreciation. If you look at Giorgione’s Laura or Titian’s Flora, you will notice that what is offered to the viewer is just as ambiguous: the woman seems to ignore the spectator, averting her gaze as though lost in her own thoughts. At the same time, the carefully calculated baring of her breast is a clear acknowledgment of the spectator’s presence. Quite obviously the true appeal of these portraits springs less from the features of the woman than from the way these are presented. We are seduced, etymologically led astray, because unsettled by the power of her enigmatic stance, which is neither entirely modest, nor entirely immodest. Although Nabokov’s manuscript remains rather sketchy, its embryonic plot does also reveal the same qualities vis-à-vis the reader; it is up to him to decipher the myriad signs generated by its specular structure. The disconcerting seductiveness of its deceitful mistress is paradigmatic of Nabokov’s preoccupations with representability, authenticity and faithfulness. What Nabokov’s pictorial representation of women lays bare is the fact that the seduction of art lies in its very deceptiveness, its tantalizing oscillation between “le vrai et le vraisemblable,” to quote the title of one of Nabokov’s essays. Because it functions, like the female figure, as a “double-talk mirror,” mimesis cannot be taken at face value only.

"Vladimir Nabokov, his masterpiece and the burning question", Stefanie Marsh, London Times, Feb 14 2008

Other people have seen the text. Only a handful, but, with a little digging, it becomes apparent that this most delicate of literary quandaries is not quite as veiled in secrecy as it once was. Zoran Kuzmanovich, the editor of the Journal of Nabokov Studies, was in that Cornell lecture room on the day Dmitri surprised his audience with an impromptu reading of Laura. “To me the passage or passages he read sounded very much like the passages of Nabokov’s densest, erotically charged prose,” he told me.

“I wrote in my notes that Laura may well be a woman and a book and that its chocolate mousse prose was not entirely safe from sounding like a parody of Lolita.”

Is Laura any good? {Talk to enough Nabokov scholars and the outline of a plot emerges: Philip Wild, an enormously corpulent scholar, is married to a slender, flighty and wildly promiscuous woman called Flora. Flora initially appealed to Wild because of another woman that he’d been in love with, Aurora Lee. Death and what lies beyond it, a theme which fascinated Nabokov from a very young age, are central. The book opens at a party and there follow four continuous scenes, after which the novel becomes more fragmented. It is not clear how old Wild is, but he is preoccupied with his own death and sets about obliterating himself from the toes upwards through meditation. A sort of deliberate self-inflicted self-erasure.}

Is Laura in a fit state for publication? Nabokov wrote most of his novels including Lolita and Pale Fire nonlinearly on index cards, which he would shuffle as part of his editing process. As Laura was unfinished and Nabokov often wrote the middle section of his stories last, it is questionable whether, published in her current state, Laura would have resembled the book that its author had intended to write. These are fragments – 50 cards compared with the 2,000 cards it took Nabokov to commit Ada or Ardor to paper.

“It seems revealing that the novel itself seems to be about work that seems to be unfinished,” says Boyd. “How finished it would have been if completed, I don’t know. There would have been deliberate lacunae.”

Rosenbaum found these accounts of what's TOOL's about somewhat at odds. But I find them consonant with what, given these sketchy reports, I would propose as a primary source: Poe's "The Oval Portrait", a short short that takes the relation of Art to Life to an extreme (and which, as a discourse upon a discourse, welcomes extrapolation [or is it involution?] to the story itself, as well as to critical appreciation). TOOL would be an elaboration of, a doubling of, an argufying of and an answering of TOP's theme. This conjecture also puts Delage-Toriel's in a new, somewhat different light. Beyond which, as Vera is dedicatee and first-row audience for Vladimir's fictions, it may indeed have been the capstone of the oeuvre that he piled up over his long career (rather than continuing the falling off that Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins! are taken to be).

So perhaps all this talk of putting TOOL to the torch has illuminated some dark corner of Nabokovia. And perhaps its publication will bring a deeper appreciation, not in and of itself, but of prior work, all unnoticed before. Per TOP:

Long--long I read--and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by, and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.
But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated.


there and here

I've been accorded the privilege of helping to pre-inaugurate Spinozablue, An Eclectic Journal of the Arts, with an essay (perhaps a cautionary exercise), "To Assume a Pleasing Shape". I promise not to expound on how I came to write it; my numerical analysis training (custom-Taylored) leads me to eschew terms beyond the second derivative anyway. But it's flattering to be asked to take an early lead; more content to follow in coming days.

Reading: After Saramago's Gospel came just-reissued Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing (trans Magnus^2son; thx JAbel for the heads-up!) and J.G.Farrell, The Singapore Grip. Now it's A Bad Man's turn (that would be Stanley Elkin). Each of the voices is familiar (trans included), each mixes light irony with dark humor; these examples may not be the best each has to offer, but it's better than what most others can.