Poetic Flow Charts

May 2, 2010

For the last month in my Early Modern Literature class we’ve been reading 17th-century poetry. One of my favorite of the poems we’ve read so far has been John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet #5”:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite ;
But black sin hath betray’d to endless night
My world’s both parts, and, O, both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more.
But O, it must be burnt ; alas ! the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler ; let their flames retire,
And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.

One thing I find really fascinating about this poem is how complex a poetic image is developed over the course of just fourteen lines. Equally fascinating, though, is how diagrammatical it all is; one could, and I have, write up a flow chart showing the movement of imagery in the poem, for it proceeds in an exquisitely logical way. Observe:

(1-2)      |  mind/body (air/earth)
(3-4)      |  -> sin
(4)          |  -> death
(5)          |   ; bible
(6)          |  -> knowledge
(7)          |  -> voyage (water)
(8-9)      |  -> water (drowned/washed)
(10-12)  |  ; fire (sinful)
(12-13)  |  -> fire (purifying)
(14)        |  -> fire (pentecostal; sacramental)

Almost all of the major ideas of the poem are here. Now, the chart is not itself poetic; it’s just a flow chart, after all. But the fact that the chart is possible, and is so interesting in and of itself, is one of the reasons it’s such a great poem. Poems that don’t have this kind of complex thought going on – that just go on  and on about the same thing,  trying to evoke a mood – can be good, but I almost always find much less pleasure in them than intellectually stimulating poems like this.

I suppose that’s probably my mathematical instincts showing through. But come on – even if you like the ambiguity poetry can offer (and I do), don’t you need some structure before there is anything there to be ambiguous with?


Metaphorical Board Games

December 27, 2009

My younger brother got a backgammon set for Christmas; the nature of the game provoked in me some questions which I will not convey, regarding the nature of traditional board games. Specifically, what is the action of the game a metaphor for? What I mean is, since each game is a microcosm, we must ask, what is the movement of the pieces, the goals of the different sides, etc, supposed to represent in terms of the real world? What follows is an exploration of this question with regards to various different board games:

  • Draughts (a class of games of which American checkers is a specific type) is one of the simplest of the well-known traditional board games. Its metaphor is clear and uncomplicated: two sides are fighting each other, your goal, as the leader of one side, is to kill all the soldiers of the other side. Most of the other rules have to do with making the game playable, and do not develop the game’s metaphor. A possible exception is the rule for getting a king when a piece gets to the opponent’s side; this seems to represent how experienced soldiers are more powerful. These games are among the oldest known board games, originating before 3000 BC in Sumeria, and mentioned in Homer; men have always fought each other in war.
  • Then there’s chess. The game is similar in many ways to checkers – indeed, it’s played on the same type of board – but it adds differentiation between the pieces. The battle here is not between two crowds of people, but between armies, with footsoldiers (pawns), well-equipped warriors (knights, bishops, rooks), and a queen and king. The king also adds an interesting dimension to the metaphor; the player is no longer a vague presence directing his army, he is physically present on the board; the king is the player. So the game doesn’t end with the destruction of the entire army; it ends when the king is captured. As one would expect, since it involves combat between complex armies with specialized tasks, chess is a significantly newer game than draughts, originating in India in the 6th century AD, and making its way to Europe by the 10th.
  • Another interesting group of board game in this general theme is the Tafl games. There are different because they are between uneven forces, and while one player’s goal is to kill the opponent’s king, the other’s is to have his king escape. The metaphor seems to be that a king and his loyal bodyguards are surrounded on the battlefield, and the guards must sacrifice themselves in order to help the king escape from the opposing army. It seems fitting that these games are Scandinavian in origin, since the lord-thane relationship is of such importance in those cultures.
  • Another board game that I’ve played very little of, but which is one of the most popular in the world, is Go. The metaphor here, as I understand it, is of controlling territory; the individual pieces do not matter as much as the land they are on, and the goal is to be the one with the most board space at the end. And again, I find that this seems somehow appropriate for its origins; it is an East Asian game, originating around 400 BC in China (though legend traces is back to 3000 BC). Oriental society has always seemed to me more interested in the societal group than in the individual, as opposed to Western civilization; thus Go fits them quite well.
  • The Tables family of games (of which backgammon is a member) is the final game I’m going to talk about. These all involve moving around a board past the opponent and trying to be the first to get all your pieces to the finish; the metaphor, then, might be one of racing. But this doesn’t make all that much sense. Neither does war, though; in what kind of war is the goal not to kill the opponent, but to send them back home? It might have something to do with merchants and trade, but I really haven’t figured it out. Backgammon is one game whose metaphor I can’t unravel – perhaps because it seems to mix them. I do know it is one of the oldest board games, being dated to before 3000 BC; perhaps, then, whatever the story was intended to be, it has been lost.

Mysteries Are Not Secrets

August 9, 2009

There’s a type of story called an “ontological mystery” (beware: I linked to tvtropes.org, an extremely addicting website). In an ontological mystery, “the characters are locked in, have no idea how they got there, why they’re there, or how to get out, nor do they know exactly who is behind their predicament, if anyone.” A few examples of ontological mysteries are the movie The Cube, the television show Lost, and Sartre’s play No Exit.

Now, I like ontological mysteries. When they’re done right. But I don’t like it when the mystery of “why they’re there” turns out to be reducible to the secret of “how they got there”. The entire appeal of an ontological mystery is that these people in this bizarre(ly simple) universe are seemingly there for a reason, a reason that’s not reducible to the fact that they were put there.

On the one hand, of course this is what ontological mysteries are. “Ontological” means “metaphysical”, directing us to the idea “final causes”, and “mystery” comes from the same root as “mystical”; both of these are clues leading me to the idea that an ontological mystery’s primary focus is on the numinous, that the final cause is what is secret here, not the material or efficient. But often supposed ontological mysteries seem to lose their way, and forget what they’re supposed to be about, so I can’t just make that claim. Rather, I’d like to argue, by presenting examples, that the quality of an ontological mystery story is fairly directly correlated to how well-done the exploration of this metaphysical question is, and not at all correlated to whether there is an answer at all to the question of material and efficient causes.

So what is the ontological mystery in The Cube? The characters speculate about how they got there. A military-industrial complex conspiracy? An ultra-rich sociopath? Punishment for their sins? No, none of these. It turns out it is simple governmental neglect – a mistake, an abberation, something completely meaningless. At least, the how they got there is meaningless, an explanation that brings them no closer to any understanding of their situation.

Where The Cube gets interesting is in two places: how they end up finding their way around the cube without dying, and what ends up happening to the different characters. How do they find their way around? By using mathematical formulas – the numerical labels on the cubes use prime numbers to designate the “safe” cubes, there is an elaborate mathematical formula that helps them find their way to the edge of the cube and get out. And what happens to the characters? They are all punished – by the cube itself and by each other – and in the end Kazan, the autistic man, is the only one to escape from the cube. The cube seems to be some sort of trial, or perhaps even is purgatory, but what is considered pure is not goodness, in the moral sense. It is simplicity of being and mathematical perfection. That aspect of the movie is interesting; really, given how mediocre the acting is and how simplistic the set designs are, that’s all the movie has going for it.

What about Lost? I remember how at the beginning of the show, there were numerous theories as to what the people on the island were. A common one was that they were in purgatory, being punished for their sins by the Island. I never really bought that, but it was at least interesting.

Where the show really went downhill, I think, was when it just continued stating explicitly “the Island is meaningful” without ever showing us any evidence of that, and then giving us simple cause-and-effect answers for the numerous questions they raise. All right, so we find out in season 2 that the plane crash was caused by Desmond failing to “push the button” – but who cares? What we really want to know is why the plane crashed, what the purpose of the Island is – but all they’ll offer us is  vague “everything happens for a reason” aphorisms, and reveal ever more complex layers of “how” – the Dharma Initiative, the various stations, the Others.

Basically, none of it ever seems to actually amount to anything. By the end of the final season, yes, they’ll probably have wrapped up all of the loose ends and so no one will be able to ask “what made X happen?”, but the writers of the show have basically convinced me that the only grand purpose behind everything that’s happened is that the writers needed everything to fit together or there’d be no show. (Incidentally, this is my dad’s main complaint with Battlestar Galactica, and where I disagree with him about the show – he thinks that the final season was just about tying up loose  ends and was never anything more than that.)

My final example is No Exit – in my opinion clearly the best ontological mystery of these three, and the best of these three period, really. So what is No Exit’s ontological mystery? The fact of where they are is fairly quickly found out – they are in Hell. The question is, why are they in Hell? What are they being punished for? The answer at first appears to be,”Garcin slept around and deserted from the army, Inez killed her lover, Estelle drowned her child”.

But, while these are the physical manifestations of the reasons for their punishments, they completely fail to say why they are in Hell – they more answer the question of “how did they get to Hell?”. In the end, they all went to Hell because they acted ‘in bad faith’, which doesn’t mean they did any particular action a particular way, but roughly means that they did what they did with the wrong intentions. Their actions point towards what their sins were, but what they did to get to Hell is in the end  not the same as why they went to Hell, they’re just related. That’s actually one of the main points of the play, I think. And it’s part of what makes No Exit a much better work of art than either of my other two examples – that it fully understands its nature as an ontological mystery, and part of how the plays functions is as an explanation of how ontological mysteries differ from mere secrets.

To close, I’m going to try to make two contrasting lists of words. “Why” versus “how”; “reason” versus “cause”; “truth” versus “fact”; “mystery” versus “secret”. Does that division basically get across the idea of what I mean by the title of this post?

Movie Review: The Cube

March 16, 2009

Several years ago, my parents and I watched a movie called Cube. It’s a “psychological thriller/horror/science fiction movie” from 1997 about seven people trapped in a giant grid of cubes, 14ft in each direction, with hatches on each face (including top and bottom) that lead to identical cubes (though each cube is colored, some red, some green, some blue, some white). They’re trying to find their way to the edge of the grid so they can escape, but some of the cubes have traps that kill you.

For some reason when I first saw the movie it made a huge impression on me. I actually made a model cube out of K’NEX, with hatches and everything, that could connect to identical cubes (though I think I only made one… maybe I made two, I don’t remember).

Anyway, I saw it again recently, so I think I can now give a good account of what struck me about it when I first saw it. It was the basic premise. It’s a perfect example of the microcosms I find so fascinating. The world is made up of hundreds of connected cubes, some of which are trapped; there are people trapped inside the cube, who have to escape before they die of dehydration; this is the world. Sure, the characters were originally from the “real world”, they did have backstories, but those aren’t important; in fact, the characters’ discussions with each other are mostly about whether or not the characters’ backstories are meaningful, and the movie ends up arguing that they’re not.

Also interesting is the mathematical aspect of it. Without ruining the plot, numbers play a big role in the cube – each cube has an ID number, and they keep trying to find some sort of system based on them to know where they are in the cube and avoid the traps – but, if you know much math and pay attention to the numbers given, the math doesn’t make sense. I suspect this was intentional on the writer’s part, just trying to mess with our heads. I found this really interesting, though perhaps in the end inexplicable and without explanation.

The final reason I liked the movie was that one of the seven characters, named Kazan, was an autistic man – not just Asperger’s or something, but severely autistic. He was also the only sympathetic character in the movie, in my opinion. And his reaction to being in the Cube is fascinating. My favorite quotation from the movie is: “This room is… green. I want to go back to the blue room.”

Now, given what I’ve just said about why I like it… is it really worth seeing? Well, yes, as long as you’re not expecting anything beyond what I’ve explained above. The acting and writing aren’t that good, the characters except for Kazan are rather dislikeable, and the special effects suck; but the movie’s only an hour and a half long, it has an interesting premise, and I would say, yes, it’s worth seeing. It’s certainly enjoyable. So watch it. If you don’t mind illegally downloading things you can probably find a torrent of it fairly easily. Otherwise, I dunno, find it on Amazon or something… though I’m not sure it’s worth paying $14 to buy a copy.

Game Review: Portal

July 21, 2008

So, a few weeks ago (actually, five or six weeks ago… the summer is passing by rather quickly), I was at a friend’s house and ended up playing the game Portal all the way through. It’s only an hour, maybe two, long. Quite a fun game, even if it’s not Free Software.

Anyway, the gameplay of Portal is quick fun. I like the first-person-puzzle-game aspect of it – combining FPSs and geometry problems is quite brilliant. And the storyline is quite compelling and well presented. It manages to show the world of Aperture Science, GlaDOS, the portal gun, and the deadly neurotoxin in an extremely believable manner. But what struck me most was how it presents a rather complete world in such a short period of time. Like I said, the game’s only an hour long.

Now, Portal is not really autonomous – it is tied in with Half-Life (also a rather good game; I haven’t played Half-Life 2), and Aperture Science is presented as a rival company to Black Mesa, the location of the experiment-gone-wrong in Half-Life. However, the idea of a stand-alone story containing a stand-alone world that could be presented in a short period of time in a reasonably complete manner intrigued me. Portal comes close – really, if you ignore the references to Black Mesa, it basically succeeds.

This is, of course, a form of mythopoeia, but I’ve never heard a word to refer to this particular subset. There is, however, one that basically fits the bill – “microcosm”. A miniature world. As I’m using it, it basically means a fantasy world that is simple enough that its nature can be conveyed in something about the length of a short story. Fairy tales often fall into this category; Sleeping Beauty (my favorite fairy tale), for example, gives you a world of good and evil fairies who have the power to control the lives of mortals. That’s really all you need. Everything else is assumed to be the same as in the real world – even if Sleeping Beauty isn’t set in the real world.

The short story I recently finished writing (but haven’t finished revising, so I haven’t posted it yet) is this kind of story. It basically wants to get across the idea of – a giant spiral ramp, good guys at the top, bad at the bottom, and they fight battles in the middle. The middle is empty. That’s the microcosm “On The Staircase” takes place in. There’s a story to go with it, of course, about one inhabitant of the staircase – but the world is just as important as the story.

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