On octopus art.

On octopus art.

When we were in college, my roommate and I spent a train ride debating the merits of Andy Warhol’s art (she was a fan, I was not).  In the end, we not only failed to change each other’s opinions, but realized that we didn’t even agree what art was.  She double majored in Biomedical Engineering and Art Theory & Practice, and her view was much more expansive than my own.

In retrospect, I can admit that she was right.  My view of art was narrow-minded.  If I had to proffer a definition of “art” today, I might go with something like:

Art is an intentionally-created module that is designed to reshape the audience’s neural architecture.

By this standard, the big images of soup qualify.  So do the happenings.

Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 1962. Image by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

I recently read a book that analyzed board games using the tools of art criticism and narratology.  Obviously, I now think that board games can be art.  They’re carefully designed; their creators often seem to have a goal for how each game should make players feel; the combined effects of text, visual components, and even rules can all work toward conveying those feelings.

One drawback to my newfound open-mindedness, though, is that I could probably be convinced that almost any designed object qualifies as art.

For a piece of art to “fail” to change your neural architecture, it would have to be mnemonically invisible – immediately after seeing it, you could look at it again and it would be as though it were the first time.  You’d never be able to recall its content or meaning.

Actually, I have read some esoteric, convoluted poetry like that.  Words that skimmed over my mind as though each synapse were coated with teflon. 

I wasn’t keen on the experience.  Minutes had passed, but, because I couldn’t remember anything that I’d read, I’d accomplished nothing.  I don’t need to actually understand a poem, I just want for it to make me feel somehow different after I’ve read it.  Like Will Alexander’s “The Optic Wraith,” which triggers a mysterious sense of unease even though its meaning squirms away from me:

The Optic Wraith

Her eyes

like a swarm of dense volcano spiders

woven from cold inferno spools

contradictory

consuming

clinging to my palette

like the code from a bleak inventive ruse

now

my understanding of her scent

is condoned as general waking insomnia

as void

as a cataleptic prairie

frayed at the core

by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes

As Alexander’s words lure me along, I lose my grasp.  But although I might not recall any specific lines, if you asked me at the end of its six pages, “So, what did you feel?”, I’d certainly know that something inside my brain was different from who I’d been five minutes before.

When I was in college, I felt strongly that art needed to be beautiful.  I was wrong.  But I still believe that art works better when it’s aesthetically pleasing, because this allows it to more readily infiltrate someone’s mind.  If two paintings are both intended to convey the same ideas, but one is more pleasurable to look at, then we can assume that it will be looked at more, and thereby convey the idea more.  A charming form helps the piece achieve its function of spreading the creator’s intended message.

And, in terms of judging the quality of art, I obviously still think that the quality of message is important.

For instance, a chair.  Every chair you’ve ever sat in was designed by somebody.  If you wanted to argue that the chair is a piece of art, I suppose I’d agree with you.  And maybe it’s a very good chair: comfortable to sit in, perfectly balanced, pleasing to see when the rising sun illuminates it in the morning.  But that doesn’t mean it’s good art.

Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs,” 1965. Photo by Kenneth Lu on Flickr.

Indeed, a chair that is bad at being a chair is more likely to be a good artwork.  A chair that’s too small or too large, conveying the discomfort of trying to make your way in a world that is primarily concerned with the comfort of bodies unlike your own.  Or a gigantic bronze throne that affords you the chance to perch in Baphomet’s lap; it would be an unpleasant place to sit, but perhaps you’d reflect more on Lucifer’s ethic of “speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.

When we humans make art, we try to engage the emotions of our audience.  Emotionally-charged situations are more memorable; while feeling awe, or anger, or joy, human minds are most likely to change.

And human art is almost always made for a human audience.  Our brains evolved both from and for gossip; our prodigious intellect began as a tool to track convoluted social relationships.  We’re driven to seek narrative explanations, both because a coherent story makes gossip easier to understand, and because our consciousness spins stories to rationalize our actions after we perform them.

If we considered the world’s most intelligent animal species – like humans, dolphins, crows, elephants, chimpanzees – most have evolved to gossip.  Large brains gave our ancestors a selective advantage because they were able to track and manipulate their societies complex social relationships in a way that bolstered survival and breeding opportunities.  Indeed, the average elephant probably has more emotional intelligence than the average human, judging from neuron counts in the relevant areas of each species’ brains.

Elephants at a sanctuary. Image by Gilda on Flickr.

And so, if an elephant were given the freedom to paint (without a trainer tugging on her ears!), I imagine that she’d create art with the intention that another elephant would be the audience.  When a chimpanzee starts drumming, any aesthetic message is probably intended for other chimpanzees.

But what about octopus art?

Octopuses and humans haven’t had any ancestors in common for half a billion years.  Octopuses are extremely intelligent, but their intelligence arose through a very different pathway from most other animals.  Unlike the world’s brilliant birds and mammals, octopuses do not gossip.

Octopuses tend to be antisocial unless it’s mating season (or they’ve been dosed with ecstasy / MDMA).  Most of the time, they just use their prodigious intellect to solve puzzles, like how best to escape cages, or find food, or keep from being killed.

Octopus hiding in two shells. Image by Nick Hobgood on Wikipedia.

Humans have something termed “theory of mind”: we think a lot about what others are thinking.  Many types of animals do this.  For instance, if a crow knows that another crow watched it hide food, it will then come back and move the food to a new hiding spot as soon as the second crow isn’t looking.

When we make art, we’re indirectly demonstrating a theory of mind – if we want an audience to appreciate the things we make, we have to anticipate what they’ll think.

Octopuses also seem to have a “theory of mind,” but they’re not deeply invested in the thoughts of other octopuses.  They care more about the thoughts of animals that might eat them.  And they know how to be deceptive; that’s why an octopus might collect coconut shells and use one to cover itself as it slinks across the ocean floor.

A coconut octopus. Image by Christian Gloor on Wikimedia.

Human art is for humans, and bird art for birds, but octopus art is probably intended for a non-octopus audience.  Which might require even more intelligence to create; it’s easy for me to write something that a reader like me would enjoy.  Whereas an octopus artist would be empathizing with creatures radically different from itself.

If octopuses weren’t stuck with such short lifespans, living in the nightmarishly dangerous ocean depths, I bet their outward focus would lead them to become better people than we are.  The more we struggle to empathize with others different from ourselves, the better our world will be.

On Alvaro Enrigue’s ‘Sudden Death,’ translation, and the power of narrative control.

On Alvaro Enrigue’s ‘Sudden Death,’ translation, and the power of narrative control.

A friend of mine spent a summer teaching English to Roma children in Hungary.  She was a college sophomore; most of the volunteer teachers were under twenty-one.  As you might expect from a gaggle of underage students on break from their elite U.S. colleges, these volunteers took advantage of the lower drinking age in Hungary to get uproariously wasted.

One morning, my bleary-eyed friend watched as her even-more-hung-over co-teacher asked child after child to translate a Hungarian word for him, only to have each break into nervous titters.  Apparently he, the co-teacher, had jotted down the words of a toast during the previous night’s drinking.  Then, as expected, he forgot what the phrase meant.

The toast was, roughly, “When you tip back your drink, empty it, because a half-finished drink is no better re-drunk than a half-fucked woman re-fucked.”  The word he was asking children to translate was “re-fucked.”  Ah, Stanford.  A college for our best and brightest!

51mew0IOfFL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_In Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death (translated into English by Natasha Wimmer), the granddaughter of conquistador Hernan Cortés escorts her visiting betrothed out of the house on the night before their wedding.  The nervous, soon-to-be-married man had spent much of the afternoon talking to his future mother-in-law about  Cortés, but it seems he only dimly understood their conversation  He’d lived only in Spain, but the mother-in-law’s language was peppered with American slang, legacy of the bloody conquest.

As they were approaching the door where they would part for the last time before they were married, [he] asked with sincere and perhaps slightly alarmed curiosity: So what does it mean to xingar, would you say?

Of course, Enrigue has let his readers in on the joke.  A few pages earlier he presented a scene from the future mother-in-law’s own childhood.  Like all children who have lost a parent, she was curious about her origins:

And do you miss him, [she] asked [her mother] … Who?  Father.  He was old and rich by the time I had him, the poor thing; he imagined that he was a real nobleman and tried to behave like a gentleman.  [Her mother] laughed again, a bit hysterically, and said: He was a wolf in a fine cap.  But did you like him?  The widow opened her eyes wide and dropped her embroidery on her lap to underscore the drama of her words: Who wouldn’t like him; he was Hernan Cortés, so los xingo a todos.  Or, in Juana’s polite translation for the benefit of the ladies and maids who didn’t speak Mexican Spanish.  He fucked everybody.

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Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is a lovely novel in the tradition of Moby Dick.  An off-kilter, obsessive narrator presents a series of essays that cumulatively build toward a new perspective on the world.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael’s obsession is monolithic.  Whales!  Whales, and their killing.  Whereas the themes of Sudden Death seem manifold: tennis, Cortés, conquest, execution, painting, the upheaval of the Reformation.  Yet the novel is beautifully esemplastic.  By its end, all these concerns are interwoven.  Perhaps this is what octopus literature would be like: everything needs to be understood at once to be understood at all, and so Enrigue lets the disparate ideas tumble forth chaotically, almost haphazardly.  His goal seems to be to immerse his reader with these thoughts.

In my opinion, he succeeds.

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For the English publication of Sudden Death, Enrigue wrote new chapters about the vagaries of language (one includes the line “If you are reading this page, you are reading a translation”), which compliment a theme that I imagine was present in the original.  Translators control our experience of stories; those who control stories, control the world.  After murdering Walter Scott, a police officer composed an English-language story of the event.  A translation.  If a helpful citizen had not recorded video, the murderer’s translation would have shaped everyone’s perception.

Enrigue’s thoughts on translation are most clear in passages about Hernan Cortés, the man who destroyed an entire civilization.

Hernan_Fernando_CortesEvery second, 4.787 people are born in Mexico, and 1.639 die, which means that the population increases by an average rate of 3.148 Mexicans per second.  A nightmare.  Today there are more than 117 million Mexicans, and an unspecified number followed by six zeros in the United States.  A rough calculation suggests that between 1821, the year the country gained its independence, and the second decade of the twenty-first century, 180 million Mexicans, more or less, have been born.  Out of all of them, only Jose Vasconcelos considered Cortés to be a hero.  His unpopularity is nearly universal.

Take, for example, an inexplicable organization called the Mexican National Front, consisting of thirty-two skinheads.  The thirty-two morons who belong to the Front are admirers of Hitler – and even they explain on their website that Cortés was a bastard.

But Cortés couldn’t have done it alone.  His inability to speak any of the local languages trapped him within a bubble of ignorance.  He could function in the new world only with the help of pair of translators.  Because no one spoke both Spanish and the language of the new world, every remark had to pass through a third language, Mayan.

One of Cortés’s translators was a Spanish priest named Geronimo de Aguilar – the priest had been part of a shipwrecked expedition, watched as his shipmates were sacrificed to the local gods, but made himself sufficiently useful that he was enslaved instead of killed, giving him time to learn Mayan.  Then Cortés came and freed him.

The other translator was a native woman named Malinali Tenepatl – she had been born into royalty but was captured in a battle.  The captors relegated her to the status of a sex slave, during which time she learned Mayan.  Then Cortés came and … no, he did not free her.  But life as the personal-use sex slave of an older conquistador was an upgrade over her prior circumstance, subject to general rapine.

Cortez_&_La_Malinche

Cortés was absolutely not ready for a diplomatic conversation that first morning in Mexico.  They’ve brought gold, said the soldier, whose name was Alvaro de Campos; lots of gold.  Then I’m coming, said Cortés; wake Aguilar.  When the captain got out of bed, setting his feet on the cabin’s plank floor, there rose behind him – her hair in tangles and her skin a little bruised from the weight of his body – the face of the girl Malinalli Tenepatl, princess of Painala and courtesan of the cacique of Potonchan, skilled in arts no less valuable for being dirty.  Time to use your tongue, Cortés ordered.  She, whose polyglot brain was beginning to recognize simple orders in Spanish, asked in Chontal: On you or the gentleman?  But seeing that Cortés was getting dressed and Alvaro de Campos wasn’t getting undressed, she understood that it was her services as a translator that were required.

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During the invasion of Mexico, every message passed through three mouths.  The conquistador had a relatively simple-minded goal – gold, and lots of it – as did the local rulers – peace – but the translators had their own agendas.  With no one to contest their words, the translators could control the world.

This is what Moctezuma’s men delivered, no matter which chronicler is consulted:

  1. A solid gold sun
  2. A solid silver moon
  3. More than one hundred gold and silver plates set with jade
  4. Armbands, anklets, lip plugs
  5. Miters and tiaras encrusted with blue gems like sapphires
  6. All kinds of carved green stones
  7. Harnesses, chain mail, doublets, shooting devices, shields
  8. Plumes, fans, and capes made of featers
  9. Strange woven garments and bed hangings

Cortés thanked them for the gifts and gave them:

  1. The bracelet of glass beads

Since there was a notable imbalance between the two mounds of intercontinental memorabilia, he asked a soldier by the name of Bernardo Suarez to toss him his helmet:

  1. A helmet

When the swap was over – the Mexica ambassadors exchanging slightly disconcerted looks before proceeding, either because Cortés’s gifts were rubbish or because they would have preferred a horse to sacrifice – Cortés made a small bow and turned his back on the imperial messengers.  He was preparing to mount again when Aguilar informed him that the Aztecs had something else to add.

The main ambassador said [in Nahautl, the local language]: We bring you these valuable gifts so that you will give them to your emperor as a token of our friendship and respect; we hope that they please you and that you return to deliver them with all your men and all the terrible beasts you have brought with you; we hope that you never again set foot in our lands. 

Malinalli, [who spoke Nahautl and Chontal], who by now had her own agenda and preferred to be the wife of an absentminded old man [Cortés] than to go back to being the sex slave of a cacique and all his friends, translated this as: We bring you these very valuable gifts but in truth they are as nothing compared with what lies ahead; we hope you like them; we give them to you so that you won’t even think about advancing farther with your terrible beasts because we know that the people are so unhappy with the emperor that they would surely join your cause and not ours. 

Aguilar, [a priest who spoke Chontal and Spanish], seeing the young warriors and their clubs bristling with knives, said: They give you a warm welcome; they say that they bring you these gifts from the emperor of this land, who is troubled because his people are unhappy; they say that it’s best if you don’t help him, that in order to get anywhere you’d have to beat all the boys over there, and they are terrible. 

Cortés said [in Spanish] that he’d think about it, and everyone seemed satisfied with his response.

The conversation between the Aztecs and Spaniards continued in more or less the same vein throughout the first stage of the conquest of Mexico, which ended with the previously described stay of Cortés and his men in Tenochtitlan.  There are few better illustrations of how a whole host of people can manage to understand absolutely nothing, act in an impulsive and idiotic way, and still drastically change the course of history.

This last line hits especially hard for a U.S. reader during the chaotic reign of the 45th.  Those who control the narrative still control the world.  Although many citizens in the U.S. speak English, Fox News and Facebook can trap people in perceptual bubbles just as effectively as language barriers.

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Enrigue furthers his message with some intentional mistranslations of his own.  He includes quotations from historical documents about the origin of tennis, but these are often manipulated to fit his story; the novel is rife with falsified detail.  One chapter of Sudden Death reads, in its entirety:

On the Causes of Poverty Under the Reign of Henry VIII

And what say you of the shameless luxury all about this abject poverty?  Serving-folk, craftsmen, and even farmers themselves show excessive vanity in diet and in apparel.  What say you of the brothels, the infamous houses, and those other dens of vice, the taverns and alehouses?  And what of all the nefarious games in which money runs fast away, condemning initiates to poverty or highway robbery?  Cards, dice, foot-ball, quoits.  And worst of all: tennis.  Banish from the land these noxious plagues.

Thomas More, Utopia, 1516

723px-Hans_Holbein,_the_Younger_-_Sir_Thomas_More_-_Google_Art_ProjectMy own Latin is very poor, but this passage of Thomas More’s Utopia seems instead to say, “games played on a table, games played with paper, games with a ball, a sphere, a disc; and when the money is gone, won’t their players become brigands?”

Or there’s the early (1556) English translation from Ralph Robinson:

Nowe bawdes, queines, whoores, harlottes, flrumpettes, brothelhoufes, flewes, and yet an other flewes wynetauernes, ale houfes, and tiplinge houfes, with fo manye naughtie, lewde, and vnlawfull games, as dyce, cardes, tables, tennis, boules, coytes, do not all thefe fende the haunters of them flreyghte a ftealynge when theyr money is gone?

Obviously Robinson manipulated the original text to further an agenda of his own, listing illicit sexuality as a deadly vice six separate times.  But he does not consider the haunters of tennis to be notably worse than those who gamble on other games.  Nor do modern translators (e.g. Robert Adams: “Look at all the crooked games of chance like dice, cards, backgammon, tennis, bowling and quoits, in which money slips away so fast.  Don’t all these pastimes lead their devotees straight to robbery?”).

It’s not enough to say that control over a narrative brings power, or even to show it.  Enrigue makes his point far more effectively; he uses this power.

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I highly recommend that you read Sudden Death.  Enrigue’s writing is erudite, comical, and cutting; Wimmer’s rendering is lovely.  And the book was written for all the right reasons.  From an authorial interlude near its end:

[This] isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Quevedo, though Caravaggio and Quevedo are in the book, as are Cortés and Cuauhtemoc, and Galileo and Pius IV.  Gigantic individuals facing off.  All fucking, getting drunk, gambling in the void.

I don’t know what this book is about.  I know that as I wrote it I was angry because the bad guys always win.  Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys have the advantage and that is too much to bear.

641px-Caravaggio,_Michelangelo_Merisi_da_-_The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew_-_1599-1600_(hi_res)