Jonathan Swift on medieval electronica and the academic world

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726-27)

Hilary Mantel on Catholicism, reality and rebels

In the ideal world, all writers would have a Catholic childhood, or belong to some other religion which does the equivalent for you. Because Catholicism tells you at a very early age the world is not what you see; that beyond everything you see, and the appearance – or the accidents as they’re known – there is another reality, and it is a far more important reality. So it’s like running in the imagination. I think that this was the whole point for me – that from my earliest years I believed the world to have an overt face and a hidden face, and behind every cause another cause, and behind every explanation another explanation, which is perhaps of quite a different order. And if you cease to believe in Catholic doctrine it doesn’t mean that you lose that; you still regard the world as ineffable and mysterious and as something which perhaps in the end can’t quite be added up. It could be summed up as saying “all is not as it seems”, and of course that’s the first thing Catholicism tells you. And then it just runs through everything you write and everything you touch, really. Plus, it’s good to have something to rebel against.

Hilary Mantel

Michael Joyce on afternoon: a story and teaching electronic literature

I find that my students are often much more able than I am to move easily between print and electronic media and to see the value in each. Remember that I am very much a creature of print culture and so always an alien to even the revolution in which I play a part. Like any reader and writer I still love the fetish of print, the beautifully bound volume, the sensuality of text. Increasingly I also value the vibrancy of electronic text, the dynamic of it. Everyone always focuses on the drawbacks of electronic media (“you can’t read it in bed”) which are transitory and largely artifacts of the current (brutish) state of technology. In time there will be beautiful, even sensual, e l e c t r o n i c objects which are utterly portable and transmutable (even transcendental) in ways that we cannot yet imagine for the book even after centuries of imagination of its beauties. Perhaps at that time we will come to see books for their multiplicity rather than their authority, learning from electronic media to appreciate that their lastingness was not in their supposed canonicity but rather their actual community. We will then live happily ever after.

Michael Joyce (1987)

Bike Snob NYC on lobster deities and the modern world

In these crazy, wild, topsy-turvy times of wars, conflicts, battles, and excessive synonym usage, it can be important to have something that gives you a sense of security. This can be something as complex as a belief system, as simple as a talisman. This is why I worship a Lobster deity whose glowing Pincers of Justice light my way like Glo Stix in the horrific rave that is life in the modern world.

Bike Snob NYC

In Korea, cocks are allowed to fight till they kill one another, and to egg them on to greater excitement red pepper is rubbed into their eyes. Newly born calves are allowed to spend the night in the open at 70 degrees below zero. Many die. The puppy which grows as the children’s pet is put in a sack and beaten to death slowly so that the meat will be tenderer for eating. Death and pain are such commonplace things that in the mountains of North Korea, they do not shock the inhabitants of that rugged country. That is why, perhaps, with the cold at its highest, their miserable hovel burned out by some strange machine for reasons they do not understand, they sit outside in the road and hardly moan. What has happened to them is not really remarkable. It is just another installment of pain and death. These things have to be, and in the summer there will be more puppies, more calves, more babies, and it will be possible to dig the now frozen earth to get clay for the new mud hut. It’s hard to defeat them, because they are already defeated, they have nothing left to lose.

Philippe Gigantés, I Was a Captive In Korea (1953)