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One town, many books

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I’m a modern everyman. I make use of books to find for myself a dwelling place, if only a temporary one, within the pastiche of narratives and experiences, facts and fantasies.

I leaf through the books, do not drink and do not drive – I smoke and fly, through the tunnel under the city castle and over the main square, hovering for a second under the feet of monument to Valentin Vodnik, the first Slovenian poet that did not write only religious verse, I’m lingering under the old linden tree before darting through the unsuspecting flock of dust-covered sparrows, and disappearing among the arcades of cajoling shop windows.

For me, the geography of towns, harbors, streets, and squares overlaps with literary topography. The poems and novels I read are chapters in a story about a particular place with which any place can identify. The tension between the fearful anxiety and the thrilling exploration that propels me on my wanderings around my imagined city delineates the modern mentality in which inescapable loyalty to a home place challenges one’s need to freely choose identity.

I’m not an exception. I remain attached to my birth town. And to my armchair, my comfortable nest for my reading sessions. It stands in the living room of my family house. The house stands in Ljubljana in what was a workers’ colony before the World War Two.
Zvezna ulica or Union Street is a generous place for our family house. It’s a dead-end street, though. Perhaps that’s the reason why it can afford to be safe for kids at play, and amicable for neighbours to trade gossip over the low garden fences. It streches from the main cemetery to the railway tracks for Trieste-Budapest trains, and ends a stonethrow away from our house.
My street‘s name does not simply denote a generic union, a bond that ties together „more than one“ entity. Its primary meaning evokes Yugoslavia, the union that emerged out of the ashes of Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 and collapsed in the flames of Yugoslav federation in 1991-1999.  

In Slovenia, an eager member of the European Union since 2004, political unions with others have long been a staple of collective life, even though Slovenians traditionally appeared as „junior partners“ at best. Its geographical location helps explain the fact that Slovenians never had an independent state. Nestled at the northwestern gulf of the Adriatic Sea, their lands appealed to a sucession of Western invaders as the easiest entry-point to the Mediteranean. The Slovenians‘ historical memory brings up the rule of Charlemagne, Habsburg Empire, Napoleon, Third Reich, Fascist Italy, royalist and communist incarnations of former Yugoslavia.

All the while, however, Slovenians maintained a collective sense of a specific ethnic identity, invariably articulated in resistance to comprehensive state-sponsored and violent politics of conversion. In 19th century, they were exposed to the unbridled apetites of rival European empires to the extent that prompted Fran Levstik, one of the founding fathers of modern Slovenian literature, to rally his people to the nationalist cause by unambigously pointing out the choice for Slovenians: either they’ll become „Russians or Prussians“. Unless, of course, they will manage to use their own language to produce ther own literature.
In doing so, Slovenians grew accumstomed to treat literature and culture as a „second best“, as a substitute for the then-largely absent political institutions of their own. From this vantage point it is easy to see why is the establishement of Slovenian independence in 1991 celebrated as the fullfilment of the popular collective desire. However, the very status of independence paradoxically rendered obsolete the uses of shared communal experience, the experience of union.

Consider: the most popular slogan of political discourse in Slovenia before it joined EU was deceptively simple. It called for a „Return to Europe“. But what was hiding in plain sight was its ugly side which—in the eyes of both, the elites and the populatuion at large—implied a „Retreat from the Balkans“. It implied severing the ties between Slovenia and the other republics that used to share a common Yugoslav house. The slogan was based on the widely shared Slovenian assumptions about their legitimate historical connections to the West (Roman Empire, Charlemagne) and their supposedly forced cohabitation with the despised and feared Balkan lands (Yugoslavia). This leading trope of public debate has encouraged the manipulation of exclusionist sentiments that ultimately ended up equating Europe with unadultarated good and the Balkans with unfettered evil.

But I refuse to accept such equation. I lend instead my ear to poets and writers from across the field as I freely choose my home. I’m at home in books about Zagreb that strive to provide evidence for the ironic insight of the great Croatian bard, Miroslav Krleža, that Central Europe begins on the terrace of the town’s most illustrious Esplanade Hotel; I’m at home in Belgrade, whose head resides in cosmopolitan heights thanks to writers Danilo Kiš and David Albahari, while its legs are entrenched under the swinging lamp of a noisy and violent Balkan tavern!
And I’m at home, truly at home, in Sarajevo, defined by ineffable suffering but also with an ethical determination to continue to talk in many voices about the right of a person to have many identities, through the supreme works of art such as can only be born out of extreme circumstances, finding expression in the quivering elegies of Izet Sarajlić, the noble urban sentiment of Abdulah Sidran, or the broad-minded epics of Dževad Karahasan.

But I readily respond to the melancholic gaze of a deer that flashes by through the morphine-laden verses of Georg Trakl; I trace the vestiges of a personal drama in the wet flowers on the façades of bourgeois palaces under the slopes of Kapuzinerberg; and I am unmistakably, although temporarily, at home in Salzburg!
The book flutters its pages and old-fashioned raincoats fan out in an effort to protect the dry loneliness of night strollers passing by the craft shops of Alfama, the heart of old Lisbon; the portrait of Fernando Pessoa emerges from under the jutting roofs of the past colonial glory written in sea salt and pigeon droppings; the portrait of a poet who produced an eternal homage to his Lisbon using the voices of imaginary authors who sing various songs but share one soul. His Lisbon is my Lisbon!

The book spreads its tattooed pages and I’m embraced by the smell of sea-worn cliffs of the northern Adriatic; the tower of the Thurn und Taxis castle appears for a moment, a fleeting pulsation, and I slowly surrender to the recognition that I’m at home in Trieste; it is here that Rainer Maria Rilke wrote two of his dizzily inspiring Duino Elegies, and it is where I now find home, under the hills of the “gulf city” depicted in the books of Boris Pahor. I’m at home in the nostalgic “chiusa tristezza” from Umberto Saba’s poem Three Streets; the steps of Nora Joyce rustle through the whiteness of the book while she paces around a rented apartment, one of a dozen she and her husband lived in fleeing from creditors; I can hear the argument of far-sighted Henrik Tuma, who as early as before World War I wanted to establish the first Slovenian university in cosmopolitan Trieste, the chief port of the Habsburg Empire, rather than in landlocked Ljubljana; although it is not visible to my eyes, I can nevertheless see Dragutin Kette’s sad promontory of San Carlo in Trieste, where the poet went to soothe the wounded heart and the needs of the swollen body; I imagine that I can understand the dialect of šavrinke, the peasant women traders from the Karst high plateau who together with the readers of Marjan Tomšič’s novels head daily towards the vegetable market in the harbor as they did during the distant times of the Habsburg monarchy; the inscription on Italo Svevo’s grave in St. Ana Cemetery tells me that he “smiles at evanescent life and glory which crowned his work late.” Roberto Bobi Bazlen, a publisher and a critic, despairingly reminds me from the desks of Biblioteca Civica that there is no other way to write modern books but as footnotes.

The poems of Czeslaw Milosz, Tomas Venclova, and Eugenius Ališanka open for me the door to Wilna or Vilnius, the “city of ash” amidst Lithuanian forests that lives a secret life of another reality, one that has been sifted through the sieves of my literary memory. I suck in the smoke, leaf through the books of poems and stories, and fastidiously sip the verses and passages in which the creative talent succeeded in conjuring up the shared destiny of immigrants and refugees, nomads and displaced people, roaming the streets and courtyards of the town whose walls demarcate the ultimate frontiers of freedom.

To be at home in a place where the sky meets the earth is to make the experience real! To be at home in a place that offers the elementary, emotionally laden and full-blooded experience! To be at home in a place in which every thing has a name! To breathe the metropolitan air which ever since the Middle Ages has been inviting all the citizens of the urban republic to get rid of old communal ties! I myself would like to become a map of the city, a written page, a thin cobweb through which older and dimmer biographies and urban chronicles shine!
While I’m getting lost wandering along the boulevards of real megapolises and among the covers of borrowed books, I actually search for my imaginary city. Wherever I discover it, a provincial village easily emulates the dwelling of gods and becomes the capital of the world! More precisely: it is the capital of my world that, along with many other and different worlds of other and different readers, travels the orbits of the “Gutenberg galaxy.”

It is true that we, readers, are the citizens of various nation-states each with our own home address and hometown. Yet the moment we open a book and yield, in our unique ways, to the adventurous challenge, we take part in the same ritual. We assert that our place of residence is in the same community, in the republic of letters. It cannot be found in any world atlas; its borders are unstable and are passionately negotiated time and again. With every story read, with every verse quietly recounted, we renew our citizenship in the republic of letters. Many opportunities arise and dissolve within it, faces distorted by horror offer a hand to fantastic patterns of paradise, and every page read turns a new chapter in a reader’s biography.

We can all become citizens in this republic, without restrictions. The only condition required to obtain citizenship is a human capacity for empathy, that is, the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. No one’s human rights are curtailed in this republic, no one is discriminated against, sentenced, or erased from the register.

Moreover, no one in the republic of letters is forced to speak the language of the majority. The literary republic of letters speaks in one language. It is the language of translation. Literature is not what gets “lost in translation,” as Robert Frost famously exclaimed in defense of poetic singularity. As for me, I’d rather go along with the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet who said that the reading of poetry in translation resembles “a kiss through a veil.” I could not care less for the ascetic chastity that, fearing loss, remains innocent, while with my lips parted in expectation I leaf through the pages of books written in languages I haven’t learned. I take my hat off thankfully to translators, the exemplary citizens of the republic of letters, who continually make it possible to every reader, all of us, to be part of the story of a temporary community committed to the lost cause that represents our true home.

 

First published by the British-based New Metropolitan, reposted per author’s permission.

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Alone and Lonely: Through the Gaze of Edward Hooper

Ankit Malhotra

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Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

As I recall the hours I spent in the Museum of Modern Art, I am reminded of the masterful work of Edward Hopper. Hopper, an American artist, was known for his enigmatic and melancholic paintings of urban life in America. He perfected the art of loneliness in his paintings and a representation of individuals absorbed by solitude. His paintings depict solitary figures staring into the abyss. The words of my former partner ring in my ears till this day. She felt the figures were recognition of the fleeting moments of loneliness that exist in all of us, whether we are amid a pandemic, economic recession or just in an ordinary day.

Hopper’s famous work, Nighthawks (1942), continues to be referred to and revered in today’s day and age. The painting portrays alienation and voyeurism quiet contemplation the scene depicts four people

in a New York City diner at night it’s meant to be somewhere in Greenwich Village where Hopper lived. There are one waiter and three patrons whose relationships are all ambiguous. Seated closely in an empty diner at dusk, it is assumed that these two knew each other. Somehow, their hands overlap yet don’t touch. Suggesting they’re in different phases and could be strangers if not just momentarily estranged. Prima facie, one looks at the dinner from an odd angle. From the vantage of an onlooker crossing the street. The triangular corner juts into the frame like the prow of a boat.

This is no coincidence. Not only was Hopper obsessed with the imagery of boats but he repeatedly situated his buildings’ angles like so. For Hopper, his subjects were both, behind and in front of windows. Of course, windows are the place where the separation between outside and inside becomes complicated. Not because we can physically move through them but because our sight does. One’s gaze invades these private worlds. Indeed, Hopper’s artistic romance with windows often appears as if windows are non-existent. Hopper’s windows vanish. They invite a voyeuristic look. Aware of the fact that knowing that houses like people can be penetrated with a gaze Hopper was a very slow, very deliberate painter.

Hopper wanted his devotion to each work to be mirrored by our appreciation as slowly and deliberately as he painted. He wanted his viewers to look at the vulnerable crouching in the dark in the building; Or opposite or simply crossing the street. Note, there is no door to the diner in Nighthawks. No way in except by way of sight. A sight that enters the fluorescent light of the establishment passes through the three patrons in their ennui and loneliness and exits into the dark.

In short, Nighthawks exemplifies Hopper’s style of a dramatic play of light, shadow, and a hue of mystery. Tensions and disconnections between people are exemplified in paintings such as Room in New York and Summer Evening. “We are all Edward Hopper paintings now,” I read on the internet. Alluding to the sense of isolation that has permeated societies undergoing lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hopper’s work resonates as the world remains in the shackles of lockdowns, even if partial. Without a shadow of a doubt, such expressions of emotions and feelings like loneliness mirror what so many feel inside due to the ‘new normal.

Nevertheless, Hopper’s work is far beyond the dull and melancholic mood of mundaneness that hangs over our heads. His paintings are a brilliant psychological illustration that speaks to the artist’s experience and thoughts on life. In solitude and social isolation, Hopper’s figures offer a kinship to the viewer, a recognition of the fleeting moments of loneliness that exist in all of us whether we’re amid a pandemic, economic recession or just an ordinary day.

Hopper’s paintings, like the rest of his skilful ilk, demand a story of interpretation. His paintings resemble book covers awaiting analysis, awaiting narratives. In such an amalgam of mystery and openness, Hopper’s paintings exude an exquisite and memorable sentiment. Staring at Hopper’s works, one notices the life in the subjects painted. Hopper’s work, in my analysis, in my narrative, seeks not to compound loneliness, but simply to recognise it.

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Moneyball: Is intuition the one thing that makes sports beautiful?

Naphat Malikul (Prim)

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Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in 'Moneyball' (Photo credit by Columbia Pictures)

Looking from afar, Moneyball looks like a male-centric sport movie that teaches us about how baseball works. But looking more closely, it is a film about business and negotiation, vital skills for someone who wants to be a good team manager. Starring Brad Pitt, the film sticks with tough, middle-aged Billy Beane, a team manager of Oakland A’s. He was recently defeated by the Yankees and found his team short-funded and losing star players to richer teams. Beane tried to find a solution for his team by turning to old, grizzled scouts who used intuition to pick good players, but ended up disappointed by the old-school system. Coincidentally, he met Peter Brand, a Yale graduated statistician who proposed a new way of organising team: to buy win and not players. Brand used statistic to find imperfect players who were underpaid, and by combining imperfections, both lead to team to break records of the decades with much less fund than other teams.

Data is the key factor in Beane and Brand’s success. It is used to predict players’ behaviour and create independent strategic moves that are combined to win the match. As Moneyball is mainly about the power of data in business success, this reminds me of one word that is frequently used these days: ‘big data’. Actually, what Brand used is not really called big data because there are three factors that must be concerned when using this word. The first one is ‘volume’, big data must consists of a large amount of data that makes it impossible for traditional methods to process it. The second is ‘variety’. There are many kinds of data, such as audio, video, text, Facebook posts, etc and this make the organisation of data more complex. The last one is ‘velocity’, means the speed of data generation. It refers to continuous and massive flow of data that happens simultaneously in a very short time. Social medias are one example of big data generation. When millions of people post on their wall all at once, the overflows of data begin and continue endlessly.

One thing about big data that captures my attention is that ‘the importance of big data doesn’t revolve around how much data you have, but what you do with it’ [1] Big data is usually used to spot defects in the process, calculate risks in business plans, and identify potential selling (or in baseball, scoring) points. Beane and Brand used their statistical data, which is administered in traditional ways, to accomplish modern tasks that all statisticians dreamt to succeed in. The predated methods of Beane and Brand paved the way for other major league teams in bringing statistic in use and changed the way baseball works forever. This makes me think of one scenario: ‘what if all the baseball records are fed to AI to create an absolutely winning team?’. The answer is more thrilling than I expected.

In the old days, scouts used intuition to pick good players. Their guts told them that some players were more talented than others and endless possibilities pop up in their imagination. ‘Possibility’ is a very powerful word because it comes with free will: the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded [2]. The scout knew they can choose players and design their game freely with their experienced minds and each player was free to act in the field to create a winning or losing game. Well, they could somehow predict the results but there was a significant space for unpredictable factors, and these unpredictable factors are vital for human conditions: we don’t want to be like robots of which all the moves can be predicted. We want to be more than gears in a close-system machine. We want to be able to ‘choose’.

It seems like the ability to choose is erased in the scenario I mentioned above. If one day AI learns how to predict absolute results of all games, that might be the end of baseball (and maybe all other sports). All the beautiful things about expectation will be gone. How can we be excited if there is nothing to expect? There will be no cheering and bets if we all know the prediction will be 100% correct. Gifts and hard works will only be reduced to numbers in sheets.

It’s true that the movie highly valued statistic and this robotic method but in the end, Beane found himself losing in major leagues. This means calculation is not always correct, but can we comfort ourselves that it was because human abilities are beyond calculations? Or do we must admit that it was because the tools he had were not advanced enough? Intuition might be an old-school tool, but isn’t it because of intuition that we have come this far? There are a lot more questions to be asked and these all will lead to the most important question: ‘what makes human condition meaningful?’

[1] https://www.sas.com/en_th/insights/big-data/what-is-big-data.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will

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The Art, Artist and The Pandemic

Ankit Malhotra

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Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889

Irrespective of how many times one visits, a spontaneous trip to Paris is always a good idea. That is because perennially alluring city of lights never disappoints.

Palatial building houses of centuries gone past us offer a contemporary aesthetic fusion of French sophistication with oriental grandeur. The enchantment of Paris is gilded with rich, jewel-toned shopping arcades, Haute couture-inspired artworks and ornate vases filled with freshly-cut camellias. A mist of tranquillity prevails in the city which stretches from the lush greenery of the glorious gardens. Paris and her pleasures exude a special kind of serenity and tranquillity. While Parisian pleasures cannot be fully roistered, art, which can fill the void of empty walls and souls alike, comes to the rescue. Paris dawns a mystical ensemble of history and art. And, art, despite the world being in a global lockdown has not stopped admirers from drooling over mastery of expression.

Evidence to support my claim and love for the human ingenuity and the love for expression are limitless. Museums and auction houses have retaliated by banding together to ride out the crisis. A plethora of blue-chip biennale like the Art Basel Hong Kong are being virtually conducted with complete oral narration. Eminent auctioneers such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips’ are accepting bids online.

Artists like Spanish painter Silvestre Santiago recently recreated van Gogh’s Starry Night directly on the hood of iconic British marque, the Jaguar. Speaking van Gogh, for whom the world was an imagination painted 150 paintings as an inmate of a mental hospital facility. His madness is depicted in his drawings through broad strokes and brush movements depicting his vision of the world around him. One is tempted to simulate the spectacle which took place in the summer of 1889in the south of France, St. Remis.

His unorthodoxy married his fascination of the night sky. The expression of the turmoil in the artist’s imagination found resonance and familiarity with the night sky.van Gogh’s added a spark to the dead and dull night sky. Unlike his previous works, van Gogh is said to have created ‘The Starry Night’ from memory and imagination rather than mere observation of reality. Critics feel that the 30-inch x 36-inch canvas painted 13 months before its maker’s death held motifs that symbolised his frame of mind, sense of isolation and a search for hope during a period of great distress. They see ‘The Starry Night’ not just as an image bursting with uncontrollable emotional energy, but also of van Gogh’s struggles and insanity at the time of its creation.

It is evident that van Gogh was always enthralled by the mysteries of the night, the dark sky and shining stars provided him with space for meditative reflection and soothing comfort for his mentally disturbed condition. “The moon comes out of eclipse, the stars blaze and heave, and the cypresses move with them, translating the rhythms of the sky into the black writing’s of the flame-like silhouette,” writes art critic Robert Hughes. The remarkable ‘Starry Night’ encapsulates intensely blue and vibrant sky which is excited yet at the same time, agitated. The sky and the stars have radiating concentric rings of light. The moon has the same set of rings around it. They are set in the sky which is not like the sky which one looks up to at night but rather is the vivid depiction of van Gogh’s imagination. The sky has swirling patterns which force the viewer to imagine the circles to move in the most psychedelic fashion possible. “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly coloured than the day,” he wrote to his brother and confidante, Theo. “When I look at the night sky, I see the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite… then life is almost enchanted after all.”

Art historian and curator Joachim Pissarro writes, “Starry Night has an imaginative force and that the night was a very big catalyst in van Gogh’s mind; van Gogh lived his life by the night. He didn’t sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, spent nights in cafés…or meditated over the very rich associations that he saw in the night. It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest”. For scholars like Pissarro, The Starry Night stands out as a truly iconic image — an emblem not only of van Gogh’s work but also of art and the mind’s unimaginable creative ingenuity.

Finally, like me in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the chances are you are not standing in front of this painting alone, you are probably surrounded by quite a few people looking at exactly what you are. That, to my mind is the magic of art. I look back fondly and realise that the painting compels one to realize the part of the reason for the paintings’ status as of a‘treasure’ and love from people has to do with van Gogh’s way of touching one’s emotional well-being and vergangenheitbewältigung. Vergangenheitbewältigung, which, from German to English roughly translates to coping with the past. This offers a deeply philosophical and stoical resemblance towards times which bear semblance to the life of van Gogh whose life like ours in such times is marred with ennui.

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