Fjords, Locks, Ineffability, Old Fishmermen

We struggle sometimes to describe things.  Usually, experiences.  Words fail many of us (if you buy that shuffling of responsibility).  I tend to be one who leans toward words.  Why?  I have tried to rationalize it with myself many times… You might say it is difficult to describe.    …  [/irony].  Probably a hyperactive left temporal lobe.

I find the same argument creeping in my cortex when I try to explain why I don’t really consider film to be a form of art.  Yes, it can be artistic, but is it Art?  Not to me, I suppose.

Perhaps it is the curmudgeon in me railing against the over-privileging of the visual.  I like to believe that my instincts tend to favor the inaginatively engaged.  Words allows us to paint our own picture.  A picture – not so much.

Some media give primacy to the experiencer.  Some just tell you what to think.  Locks – at least the locks I’ve been through in Norway – and fjords fall into this difficult-to-capture realm.  A picture fails them.  But… we try.  We essay.  We assay.  Whatever.

Animated gifs: perhaps they can fill a gap.  Here’s a few shots of what it looks like to drift into the stepped locks of the Telemark Canal in south central Norway.  Typical locks raise or lower you by a meter or two, sometimes three.  This canal has 5 different sets of locks (all manually operated, by the way) each with between three and five separate holding cells.  Some of them raise you by 9 meters(!).

You can see the wet waterline indicating in some of these how high the boat is about to be raised.  Consider that just one of these pictures is one of three in a row.

A look into the previous level
Lock closing behind you

Aside from the claustrophobic locks, the canal looks a good bit like the fjords, only not as expansive.

Slartibartfast.  Everyone knew it was coming, so there it is.  When I was a pre-teen, I used to collect all the maps out of National Geographic.  They used to include massive fold-up maps of a different country or region every issue, and I pinned them all to my wall.  Even before I knew about Douglas Adams, I spent hours pouring over the fjords.  I used to recreate them on a gigantic desk-size pad of graph paper.  (I also once froze “Return of the Jedi” on VHS at the point where they project a 3D image of the surface of Endor, and I tried to copy it onto the same graph paper.  I burned a hole in the tape…)

Nothing seems to capture the true feeling of being in the fjords.  Maybe a VR experience… Apple’s “live photos” converted here with Google’s “Motion Stills” app that converts them to animated gifs (and apparently thinks it is cool to slobber their icon on my photos) are the best we can do.  I’ll have to leave it up to your imagination to put yourself in this place – you have to think that everything you see in the picture is not just in front of you, but beside you, behind you, and all around everywhere you go.

Down a dizzying sloop of consistently calm dark water, with the feel of a temperate rain forest from the Gulf Current waters, hard carved granite ripped as far beneath you as overhead, gargantuan cruise ships sloughing past, and everywhere there is a coast line there are red fishermen’s hyttes and remote steads where you can see people saying, “Well, this is where I will live.  And that’s the end of the discussion.”



Cathedrals, Mosques, Synagogues, oh my! (Part 1)

I read up on a lot of Spanish history in December.  One area of especial interest is from about 700 CE to 1500 CE.  That time span is bracketed at the low end by the Visigoths (who were nominally Christian), and at the high by the Reconquista, when the houses of Ferdinand and Isabel were joined and re-took Granada from the Moors, sparking a new age of Christian hegemony.  The Inquisition, what a show…

During this in-between time, adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all resided in the Iberian peninsula.  The Moors basically controlled southern Spain, and though some would say they had control of all Iberia in toto, they never really challenged the old Visigothic Christian cities up north in Aragon, or in the northwest.

The Moors brought with them a great deal of ancient knowledge.  Besides introducing oranges, almonds, olive trees, and other staples that would come to re-define Iberia, they brought the accumulated wisdom of the “classical” world – primarily encoded in Arabic.  And some fantastic architectural techniques.

Some photos of “La Alhambra”:

The power of the Moors fluctuated as families split and attention wavered between northern Iberia and the Berbers in North Africa.  But in general, the rule of law treated Jews and Christians as “people of the Book” (“dhimmi,” or in Arabic: ذمي‎‎ (ḏimmī)).  Basically, this meant they had freedom to worship, but also had to pay a tax (“jizyah” (Arabic: جزية‎‎ ǧizyah)).  (Speaking of which, I’m wondering if this historic practice of “tolerance via payments” is rooted in Persian precedent…I need to listen through the new Hardcore History episodes.)

Now this theoretical concept of la convivencia, as some have speculated, is rife with controvery and floundering in rhetoric.  No “diachronic” comparative analysis of systems of law (over time) which we attach to a major “religion” will ever produce a winner.  It is not a zero-sum game.  And there is no ultimate truth to be found.  Whoever claims that one religion is more peaceful or rational than another based on evidence x, y and z is standing on shifting sand.

I read one review on Amazon of a text that disputes the idea that “Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in relative harmony” during this period in Spain.  The text elaborates all the horrific treatment that Christians and Jews suffered under Muslim rule, and essentially demonstrates there was never any real peace; the idea that they had it better under Muslim rule than the converse is poppycock.  The reviewer praised the book for breaking the “politically correct” theory of convivencia.  Well, this won’t be very politically correct for me to say, but all religions are flawed and a waste of time.

All governments are, too.  And so are all corporations.

(I’m not trying to go all Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett here.)  But all of these things – governments, religions, companies – share one great corrupter in common.  Us.  I’m as equally suspicious of two religious adherents meeting together as I am of two government officials or two businesspeople brokering a deal.  (And let’s not get started with the lawyers.)

We’re flawed.  We make mistakes.  We’re subject to neurochemistry we do not control nor yet understand.  Our nervous systems react to perceived realities as veridically as they do to actual ones.

Yet there remains beauty in the intermeshing of existences.  Sometimes violent, sometimes empathetic.  The myriad con-glomming.  Interspersed and overlapping keyhole arches, geometric repetition betraying a harmonic theory, hyper-attentive detail.  This book is an interesting read [Amazon link] on all of the above.

To gyre and gimble in the Main: of Spain, where it chiefly rains…

I’ve “gyred” back to Toledo.  I rode into this town on a Miyata touring bike with an elliptical sprokcet in 1986.  The theory is in this copied image (and explained very well for enthusiasts here): you are meant to gain more momentum in your stroke.  My bike had the Shimano variant marketed as “biopace,” which is slightly different than this image.  Although there were theories that this wasn’t really good for your knees, I never got to that stage because the bike was stolen sometime in 1990 when I took it to college.


But back to “gyre.”  Humpty Dumpty said:

When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less

Alice reads through the lines of the Jabberwocky poem, and HD tries to explain the words to her:

To “gyre” is to go round and round like a gyroscope.  To “gimble is to make holes like a gimlet.

When I was here before, I was terribly excited to visit “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” in the Iglesia de Santo Tomé.  It is extremely large: more than 15 feet high.  The snippet of an image I’ve included is only a pittance of the whole.


We were also excited to try and find some switchblades to buy.  Now, as then, the city abounds in swords.  My high school history teacher Mr. Gaul taught us that Toledo was famous for swordsmithery.  He also told us that some people named the Vandals, notorious for their sacking, looting, pillaging and despoiling acumen, gave popularity to the term “vandalism” following their 5th C escapades across southern Europe, into the Iberian penninsula and north Africa.  We didn’t believe him at the time.

We had elliptical sprockets, but no pervasive cell towers allowing us to fact-check our teachers at a moment’s notice: something my friends today do with reckless abandon.  (Once or twice a year I reminisce with Jimmy Wales in 2005.)

Memory is self-serving and imperfect.  Having experienced very disturbing memory loss in recent years, I look forward to re-experiencing the countryside I once toured.

I recalled Toledo as being magnificently dark, covered in cobblestones, high medieval walls and narrow streets.  I was partly correct.  The streets are as I recall, but perhaps I was looking down too often back then: the city is rather ruddy in complexion, almost sandstoney in tone: brighter than I recall.

I’m also now better able to recognize the Muslim influences in the architecture.  A superb example of the overlapping “horseshoe arch” I’ve cribbed from Córdoba:


There’s plenty of similar textures in some photos I took inside the cathedral (Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo).  There’s a kind of nested fractal regularity that meshes Indra’s Net with Jackson Pollack with a Harmonic Theory of Everything at work.

I wonder how much of this patterning resulted from the early 8th C edict of Leo III the Isaurian, Byzantine Emperor, banning the use of imagery or iconography in religious worship.  (Not to deny that aniconism exists in many forms of religious worship and seems to develop organically: I’m reminded of reactionary artistic explosions, like the Caves at Mogao (莫高窟).)


Over the next two weeks I’ll gyre my way south, and I look forward to my re-imagining of Gibraltar, the Costa del Sol, and Al Andalus.

Copenhagen Opera Week,あそばせ言葉, Danish Design & Art

The Operaen, seen here through a chain fence on an approach bridge, is one of the most expensive and well-equipped facilities of its kind in the world.  Opera has always seemed inaccessible to me.  This week is Opera Week.

Stages and soundsets are erected at sundry major city intersections and gathering places.  One is at the Torverhallerne, an outdoor/indoor/warehouse-style collection of dozens of boutique specialist micro-vendors: an olive vendor from Greece, a kimchi-sandwich specialist, a Paleo-friendly bakery, a wine pub, three different charcuteries, two fresh fish vendors directly across from one another.  Yes, a juice bar.  Duh.  Picnic tables, sunbrellas, bistro tables and recycling bins, just above the metro stop.

Free opera stage at Torverhallerne

I don’t know the operas.  I don’t know the language of most of them, nor even the plot.  I know them on a mythological, Campbell-esque level of ISMs and basic human empathy, but I can’t place a song within a piece.  The barrier has been cost, more than anything.

So I tell myself.  I’ve met ballerinas – one a prima from Azerbaijan, who quit because she is too tall for most men to dance with her (she is also perhaps the most well-read person I have ever met) – who don’t make enough money in their craft to afford tickets to their own shows.  But they do.

So has the barrier been monetary?

There is free opera on the street, for anyone to consume.  This shining examplar of design sensibility (I mean Danish design): it is everywhere, in every curve on a shipping container to the shape of the LED street lamps to the three self-evident circles on the public washroom sink tap.  The island next to the Operaen is the Papirøen: a kind of permanent food-truck island.  The entire structure is old shipping containers, and the inside is reminiscent of a Singapore food market.  It is cheap, fresh, vibrant, and has an art space currently showing Yoko Ono’s Wishing Trees.

“Wishing Tree” exhibit by Yoko Ono at Papirøen

Not far beyond the Papirøen is Noma: twice (or more) the greatest restaurant in the world, culmination of Chef Rene Redzepi’s gastronomic manifesto, housed in an abandoned whaling butchery.  Not far beyond Noma, in a squatted military base, is the Freetown of Christiania, a kind of social experiment since 1971 when the local homeless tore down a fence to make a playground for their kids.  (They ask you do not take photos, and they have signs banning Pokemon Go collectors, but I snapped a pic of this statue before knowing the no-photo rule.)

Untitled statue at Freetown of Christiania

Finally, overlooking Freetown rises the spiral tower of Vor Frelsers Kirke (“Church of Our Savior”).  The classic Scandinavian baroque project of  King Christian IV (who drove Tycho Brahe to Prague) stands out with an external winding helical staircase that climbs nearly 300 feet into the otherwise low skyline of the city.  People wait more than an hour to ascend, step by step in a line.  At the top, there is no grand viewing platform: you simply turn around and go back.  It wasn’t built for the general public, nor for a tourist market.  It was for the King or the Bishop to view, to ponder, to consider.

Is it the money?  When art is comercially and financially successful, when the trappings of moneyed culture glom onto it, has the art changed?  Or just us?  It costs me nothing to look at the statues in Christiania.  Does that make their art more authentic than the musical showing at the Operaen this week (which happens to be “Dirty Dancing”…), on a stage with a rotating outer ring and an inner hydraulic collapsible fence, with hi-res cameras projecting onto movable screens, with world-class musicians in the pit?  (Did they sell out to sell out?)

I saw an opera student singing outside Torverhallerne who pulled off her bracelets, her earrings, her scarf, her rings, and pulled down her “f*ck me red” panties and threw them into the crowd while laughing falsetto.  (While I drank a 25cl Odense Classic.)  I saw Yoko Ono’s re-hash of a scene at every 神道 shrine I’ve ever visited in 日本 labelled as an installation exhibit.

We bring class/division/categoricals into our Art.  We find it there, because that’s how our minds work.  We layer platitudes like, “All Art is political.”  To me, that’s as genuine as saying “All Art is made by humans.”

Audre Lorde, self-identified: “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” in her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury” writes:  “If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core – the fountain – of our power, our womanness; we have given up the future of our worlds.”


So who makes opera luxurious?  All art for that matter?  A public or private delineator, a cost barrier, an expectation, a purpose.

Chef Redzepi of Noma, in his New Nordic Cuisine [PDF], defines the French terroir as “the combined conditions offered by nature – soil and sun, wind and rain – that endow food with its unique identity.”


Redzepi speaks of nature, Lorde speaks of experience.  The Copenhagen Design Museum looks at production.  Papirøen is an urban design experiment.  Yoko Ono is an installation/importation.  Christiania is a social experiment.  Vor Frelsers spire is responsibility.  Opera Week is ambush art.  Some of us are pasting over all of this with thoughts of, “Yes, but homogeneity…”   Homogeneity is quite loaded, and will take some time to unravel, to unwind.  For now, I’m thinking about Homo Ludens and how it can distort perception.


Johan Huizinga in Playing Man (“Homo Ludens”) is quoted by Joseph Campbell:

“[Japanese language] still preserves this conception in the asobase-kotoba (literally, play-language) or polite speech, the mode of address used in conversation with persons of higher rank… the revered person is imagined as living in an elevated sphere where only pleasure or condescension moves to action.”

However… in her text “Women’s Language, Men’s Language,” linguist Ide Sachiko writes:

Asobase kotoba (exaggerated politeness) is a specialized form of honorific or polite speech used only by women wishing to emphasize or draw attention to their femininity…. The form was commonly used by women of the upper classes and high-ranking courtesans.  By adding the verg asobasu to action verbs in the second and third person, the user may feel that she is elevating the referee’s status – even if only marginally – in the specific context of the immediate conversation by implying an association with a social elite, past or present.”

Two rather different takes on the terroir of language use.

Opera is graffiti across the public spaces, across the terroir, of Copenhagen.  How we watch, smell, listen, taste, participate – where we do so – how we do so: it is for the Lordes and Huizingas, the Campbells and Redzepis, the Ides and Onos.  I’m just here, seeing the same thing in different ways.