Alla Faccia

Cosi` come molte altre lingue, anche l'italiano offre vari modi per potersi riferire alla parte della testa che ci guarda: faccia, volto, viso. Nell’agile volumetto di Antonio Marturano, intitolato Faccia. Identita` e deformita` (Fefe` Editore*, 2021, pagg.132), la faccia e non il viso ne` il volto e` al centro dell’attenzione soprattutto intesa come “elemento distintivo di un individuo all’interno dei rapporti sociali portarice dell’identita` personale”. Nell’Introduzione viene spiegata questa scelta molto saggia perche` lascia all’autore la liberta` di trattare della parte materiale del corpo, visibile, tangibile, e piena di significati sociali e personali. Due sono le linee centrali che guidano il pensiero dell’autore: da un lato, viene sviscerata la questione sociale e i rapporti umani che riguardano le reazioni pieni di pregiudizi degli altri dimostrati alla faccia, soprattutto se questa e` in qualche modo non “normale”, deturpata da malattie e ferite. D’altro lato, si prende in esame il ruolo identitario della faccia, vista come l’elemento centrale dell’identita` personale.

I quattro densi capitoli ripartono la materia in questo modo:

  1. Pragmatica della faccia

Qui viene descritto il ruolo istituzionale della faccia in quanto la “vera” imagine di essa appare su documenti istituzionali che poi rafforzano l’idea dell’identita` personale (per es., la carta d’identita`). In questo caso, una persona e` “puramente una costruzione sociale” (p. 21). L’italiano abbonda di metafore e modi di dire che ruotano intorno alla faccia: perdere la faccia, metterci la faccia, faccia d’angelo, (viene menzionata la faccia verde e ‘ngialluta in napoletano). Nel capitolo si fa anche menzione della tecnologia dell’intelligenza  artificiale che si occupa del riconoscimento facciale e dell’interfaccia nella computeristica.

  • Topica della faccia

Questo capitolo prende in esame alcune malattie che risultano in malformazioni e patologie facciali che provocano in altri un senso di repulsione e causano nell’individuo che ne soffre una forzata reclusione e privazione di rapporti sociali normali. L’autore esamina 3 casi: quello di Remy De Gourmont, quello di Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man), e quello dell’esperienza personale. La consapevolezza di essere repellenti e la consequente mancanza di rapporti sociali separano brutalmente l’individuo dalla vita “normale”.  Qui il gioco e` anche la “trasfigurazione” della faccia, cioe` l’interazione tra la brutezza esteriore e la bellezza interiore (dio/diavolo): sia De Gourmont che Merrick, nonostante le loro facce fossero deturpate da malattie orribili, trovarono amici o medici che furono capaci di intravvedere i valori  umani al di fuori delle loro malformazioni facciali. Il caso personale di Antonio Marturano riconduce il discorso alla forza motrice della discriminazione nei riguardi di chi e` “diverso”, ma anche alla forza della gentilezza e dell’amore materno che superano quelli che sarebbero visti come ostacoli alla vita “normale”. Viene anche ricordato il fatto che la chirurgia maxillo-facciale arriva solo dopo la I Guerra Mondiale dopo la quale i reduci i cui visi furono distrutti poterono usufruire delle cure particolari per la prima volta.   

  • Prostetica della faccia

La possibilita` di subire interventi chirurgici per risanare le sfigurazioni dovute alla guerra schiude altre problematiche, quali l’inclusione/l’esclusione sociale, il riconoscimento o l’orrore della propria faccia dopo l’intervento, la difficolta` di acquistare l’integrita` personale. Il caso dell’autore stesso che soffre della Sindrome Treacher-Collins (o Franceschetti-Zwahlen-Klein) sottolinea il problema di quelle malattie che portano non solo deturpamenti alla faccia, ma che sono accompagnate da altre patologie (che compromettono la respirazione, l’alimentazione, l’udito, il linguaggio): tutto questo provoca effetti negativi nelle relazioni sociali tra l’individuo e la societa` che in tanti casi si presenta intollerante, e piena di pregiudizi nei riguardi di chi e` “diverso”. L’autore, la cui malattia viene descritta come disabilita` di tipo medio-leggero, ha potuto costruirsi, dopo molte sofferenze, una vita piena di soddisfazioni grazie anche alla moglie Cinese e al figlioletto adottato Indiano.  Inoltre, questo capitolo tratta l’argomento scottante dei nostri giorni dovuto alla pandemia: quello delle mascherine, le ragioni del loro rifiuto, e le spiegazioni del loro uso. In teoria, tutti dovrebbero avere gli stessi diritti, ma e` palese che la realta` si rivela ancora lontana da questa visione.

  • Conclusioni. La bellezza non salvera` il mondo

I pregiudizi estetici nei riguardi di chi ha la faccia deturpata da malattie o da ferite non solo sopravvivono ma vengono amplificati dalla sfrenata corsa all’uniformita` forzata dai sistemi produttivi capitalistici. L’autore fa appello a non lasciarci cullare dalla pigrizia mentale dell’uniformita` in modo che la biodiversita` culturale sia preservata e incoraggiata. Bisogna non solo uscire dalla conformita` e confrontarsi con la diversita`, ma soprattutto e` indispensabile uscire dall’incapacita` di “estirpare l’idea dell’equipolenza tra carattere e forma della faccia”.    

Questo libro si e` rivelato uno di quelli che bisogna leggere piu` di una volta, perche’ i pensieri, le idee, i suggerimenti inclusi in esso fanno volare la mente in varie direzioni, tutte fruttuose. Prima di tutto, la forma, la foggia, della nostra  faccia, volente o nolente, incita a una reazione sociale e  personale. Questa reazione sociale non e` innata, e` creata dalla cultura in cui viviamo ed e` spesso esito di secoli di affermazioni estetiche senza fondamento. La reazione personale, come ci vediamo noi stessi, soprattutto oggi, e` pure finzione di un  meccanismo economico e non ha basi solide su cui costruirsi un’identita`. In secondo luogo, il libro sottolinea la tensione ghettizzatrice fra la voglia di passare inosservati e la voglia di essere riconosciuti veramente: questa tensione esiste sia in chi ha deformazioni facciali sia in chi nasce con quello che si intende per belta` oggi (anche se, per ovvi motivi, il libro non tratta questa situazione). La malattia puo` diventare anche una fonte di forza, di autocoscienza piu` profonda: chi ha il volto deturpato osserva il mondo da una prospettiva che apre le riflessioni e stimola “ad andare oltre i limiti che la societa` a tutti i costi, con la sua logica da darwinismo sociale”,  vuole imporre a tutti (p. 113). Inoltre, l’autore cita, sempre a proposito,  vari autori (Arendt, Berlin, Kant, Lavater, Lombroso, Rodota`, ecc.) le cui idee arricchiscono il ragionamento offerto. Interessantissime sono pure le illustrazioni di facce prese da pittori (Escher, Salvador Dali`, De Chirico, Haisler, ecc.), ognuna delle quali potenzia gli argomenti trattati.  

In conclusione, la lettura di Faccia. Identita` e deformita` di Antonio Marturano regala un godimento intellettuale che vale la pena assaporare a lungo.

*Il libro fa parte dell’affascinante collana intitolata “Oggetti del desiderio” in cui trovano posto Lingua, Cuore, Palpebre, Bocca, Orecchio, Naso, e molti altri.

The Celts and the Cruelty of History

Never have I read a subject treated with such tenderness and unabashed partiality as shown by Peter Berresford Ellis in A Brief History of The Celts (London: Robinson, 2003, 235 pp.). If the saying that “history is written by the victors” rings true, this book certainly contradicts it. Even though the individual Gauls and Celtic tribes are gone, the Celts/Gauls are still alive today in languages, the DNA, in arts, in myth. The author wrote this handy history of the ancient Celtic peoples to dispel in fact some erroneous myths and views about them, propelled by the historical urge of the winners to belittle the vanquished, in this case, the victorious Romans and the defeated Celts.

The contents of the book are divided into 15 chapters with titles such as “The Origins of the Celts” (Chapter 1), “The Druids” (Ch. 4), “Celtic Warriors” (Ch. 5), “Celtic Women” (Ch. 6), “Celtic Farmers” (Ch. 7), “Celtic Cosmology” (Ch. 9), Celtic Artists and Craftsmen” (Ch. 11), “Early Celtic History” (Ch. 15). The author relies on factual documentation usually presented by historians, or, better still, of history before it has been written down by the Celts. Hence, his sources are Greek and Roman historians (obviously biased, and this bias has been underlined numerous times; “bowdlerise” is a verb that the author uses for Roman history of the Celts), writings from the Middle-Ages (usually Christianized Celts, so, too, their view of Celtic history is skewed), archaeological finds mostly from Britain and Ireland, found in museums of various countries, and settlements dug up even as recently as the early 2000s. What follows does not recap the corrective process of setting straight the erroneous beliefs about the Celts. It is clear that the Celts were not “drunken, childlike barbarians, only one step removed from animals” (p. 199, a view held by the Romans). Their achievements were numerous, and their inventions helped the world to move forward, even if it was thanks to the Romans who appropriated themselves of these inventions (such as the Celtic rectangular shield, instead of the round Roman one, since the rectangular one was more useful to form the testudo). Rather, there are three questions of clarification I would ask the author, and these are elaborated on below.

  1. What determines the success of one people over another? Why did the Celts, who were smart, politically savvy, and spiritually strong, succumb to the Roman armies? The author does not offer an overt answer to this question, although there are indications of some reasons for the defeat of the Celts. These include pressures from the Germanic and Slavic peoples who were encroaching on the Celts’ territories, tribal wars among the Celts themselves, the Celts’ relatively peaceful lifestyle, and a lack of unified Celtic nation.
  2. There are a number of occasions which warrant, according to the author, a comparison with the ancient Indian civilization parts of whose knowledge, compiled in the Vedas, seem to proceed on a parallel trajectory to the Celtic civilization. What is the reason for this similarity between the ancient Indian Rajputs and Celtic Riglach (young warriors recruited only from the sons of kings)? Or why is it that only in the Celtic and ancient Indian societies the sick were cared for in what may be termed the first hospitals (whereas other ancient cultures tended to abandon the sick and the aged)? Or why is it that the Celtic god Cernunnos, and the Hindu god Shiva/Prasupati, were both called “Lord of the Animals”? Is their origin indeed common, as is claimed by Prof. Dillon? As far as the Celtic belief in the immortality and the Greek one is concerned, Berresford Ellis states clearly that “the Celts did not borrow their philosophy from the Greeks, nor did the Greeks borrow it from the Celts. The evolution of the doctrine of immortality of the soul was a parallel development in several Indo-European cultures, and might originate from an earlier common belief.” (p. 171).
  3. The Druids were clearly a group (caste?) set apart form the rest of the Celtic population. Was their oral-only transmission of knowledge a hindrance to open-up their discoveries to all the people? Why were they so loath to put in writing what they knew? Although the ancient Indian civilization, too, was based on oral transmission, especially of the chants, it did, after all, end up putting in writing the sacred texts. Not so the Celts. What was the reason for this reticence?

This book, more than any other historical account of vanquished peoples, underlines the fact that history in general, and ancient history in particular, is much more complex than meets the eye. The author succeeded in making the readers much more open to question their beliefs about the Celts, and to see them in their human, frail, and yet realistic form. To illustrate this, one endearing fact will suffice: the Celtic law allowed the wife to divorce her husband if he snored. It seems that snoring was and is an aggravating aspect of marriage…

In conclusion, the book deserves to be read because the author insists on reliable sources, and presents his subject in an accessible manner.

Oltre “il fenomeno Camilleri”

Nella cultura letteraria italiana, periodicamente capita “il caso”, detto anche “l’autentico caso”, o, più recentemente, “il fenomeno”. Si tratta di un avvenimento condizionato dal profitto e limitato nella sua durata temporale, eppure con strascichi culturali imprevedibili e duraturi. Il “caso letterario” nasce quasi di botto, senza preavviso, e può essere definito come la salita nella popolarità di uno scrittore anche alle prime armi che riesce a diventare popolare (spesso senza l’aiuto dei critici accademici), vende moltissimi libri (e così solleva dai debiti la fortunata casa editrice), appare come ospite in moltissimi programmi televisivi, e, se ha carisma, diventa il beniamino dei mass media. Tutto questo offre delle  condizioni perfette per dare sfogo a schieramenti di parte, a polemiche anche spietate, e a esternazioni inaspettate.

            Uno dei personaggi emblematici di questo intreccio tra popolarità e macchinazioni mediatiche è senza dubbio Andrea Camilleri (1925-2019).  Non c’è bisogno qui di percorrere la sua carriera di regista e di scrittore. Basti dire che la sua opera letteraria spazia vari generi, diversi stili e lingue: di sicuro, i più conosciuti sono i gialli, inoltre, ci sono i romanzi storici, saggi di storia e di letteratura, i romanzi poetici (la trilogia delle metamorfosi), e altri.  Le trasposizioni dei gialli a sceneggiati TV hanno raggiunto altissimo numero di spettatori, per di più, non sono le uniche trasposizioni delle sue opere letterarie (se veda la più completa miniera di informazioni sullo scrittore e sule sue attività offerta da Camilleri Fans Club sul sito http://www.vigata.org/).

            Chi guarda il fenomeno Camilleri da una certa distanza si può rendere conto del fatto che questo scrittore ha portato tre valori significativi alla cultura italiana contemporanea:

1. Soprattutto i suoi gialli hanno (ri)avvicinato moltissimi italiani alla lettura. Ci sono varie testimonianze di questa magnifica funzione dello scrittore agrigentino sia nei programmi televisivi che sui social media. Nel paese che non vanta l’assiduità alla lettura come una delle caratteristiche culturali, questo fatto è notevolissimo.

2. Le opere di Camilleri hanno offerto una rivalutazione dei dialetti italiani, in specie del siciliano. Nel momento in cui la letteratura italiana stava perdendo il sostegno della lingua letteraria, era inevitabile che uno scrittore di un certo retroscena sociologico guardasse all’indietro e usasse gli attrezzi linguistici a lui cari, che si sarebbero rivelati cari anche alla maggioranza dei lettori non siciliani e non accademici. Sulla lingua di Camilleri esistono molti interventi, e, come capita sempre con un “fenomeno”, i detrattori e i lodatori propongono i fatti che comprovano le loro posizioni. L’analisi di Luigi Matt  descrive in profondità  le posizioni opposte (“Lingua e stile nella narrativa camilleriana” https://www.camillerindex.it/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Quaderni-camilleriani-12.pdf#page=41 )

3. Il terzo pregio di Camilleri è stato quello di costringere gli Italiani a guardarsi dentro di sé e intorno a sé con più attenzione per capire chi sono, quali caratteristiche dimostrano, come si comportano, come parlano. È noto che Camilleri stesso ripeteva che vorrebbe che i suoi lettori ridessero di meno e pensassero di più. Questo desiderio non è stato accolto dai detrattori dello scrittore perché continuano a ripetere: ma i Siciliani non sono cosi, nessuno parla come i personaggi dei romanzi, la Sicilia descritta è superficiale, folkloristica, sorpassata (si veda Francesco Merlo, Roberto Cotroneo, Giulio Ferroni, ecc.). Le analisi dei detrattori non fanno progredire la conversazione oltre queste generalizzazioni. È più che evidente che ai detrattori dello scrittore agrigentino non piace come scrive e cosa scrive, e allora le loro conclusioni continuano a separare la cultura “alta” da quella “bassa”, mettendo le opere di Camilleri nel mucchio basso perché contiene cliché ormai sorpassati, esagerando la dualità della cultura italiana. Camilleri si è difeso dicendo che è ‘un artigiano della scrittura’, ma l’ironia sottile del suo atteggiamento non sfugge ai membri del Camilleri Fans club, che lo chiamano, con affetto, “il Sommo”. Che la popolarità sia alla base dei giudizi così polari non c’è dubbio (si veda a questo proposito il mio articolo intitolato (“I test della (im)popolarità`: il fenomeno Camilleri sulla rivista Quaderni d’italianistica https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/qua/article/view/9344/6297 )[i].

Sarà troppo presto per tirare le somme dell’importanza o meno di Camilleri per la cultura italiana, ma due sono i fenomeni che ci costringono a fare delle considerazioni preliminari: da un lato, c’è la scomparsa di Camilleri nel 2019, e, dall’altro lato, la pandemia del covid-19. La morte di uno scrittore segna la fine del suo lavoro, ma non la fine dei convegni accademici virtuali, delle relazioni ufficiali pubblicate e non, dei raduni virtuali che hanno come scopo la discussione dei temi, dei personaggi, della lingua nelle opere letterarie. Questo è vero anche per Camilleri, e la prova sta nelle iniziative che sono elencate sia sul sito vigata.org, che sui vari social network. La pandemia, pero`, ha fermato l’aspetto sociale, il passaparola di presenza, perché tutto avviene ora nel mondo virtuale. Questo fatto rende la conoscenza delle tendenze sociali profonde molto difficile e lascia spazio ai vari specialisti di comunicazione di massa di promuovere, forzare, originare le tendenze.  

È indubbio che Camilleri ha guardato all’indietro, perché apparteneva alla generazione che ha vissuto la seconda guerra mondiale (è stato chiamato anche “il nonno”), ha visto il susseguirsi dei governi, ha imparato le nuove tecnologie che però non sono protagoniste dei suoi romanzi. Comunque, la pandemia ci induce a guardare in avanti. In questo senso, le opere di Camilleri sono una testimonianza del tempo immaginario che fu, piena di lingue particolari, di ironia, di tristezza, di amore, di odio, di leggerezza e di profondità, e di umorismo: la testimonianza è viva finche` ha lettori. Questo è vero per tutti gli scrittori che pubblicano opere letterarie. La pandemia sta rafforzando però quell’aspetto della tecnologia che non si basa sulla scrittura: i vari programmi (Zoom, Team, ecc.) fanno dell’oralità la regina.

Cosa ne è rimasto della auto-definizione degli Italiani? Nunzio La Fauci suggerisce che Camilleri sia “una nobile varietà dell’arcitaliano” (https://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/andrea-camilleri-un-arcitaliano?fbclid=IwAR1WFPyjY8y4hXRpmWu1g3KaCZTc4u5go9IiDJY0SzQ1ekToQAHoczHm76o). Ma ha ancora senso cercare una definizione di “Italiani/Italiane”? La pandemia sta sgretolando il senso di appartenenza a una nazione (a meno che non sia forzato per motivi economici – si veda il piano europeo di sussidi agli stati), e sta chiudendo gli individui in un guscio ancora più piccolo di un paese. Nel periodo di transizione tra l’Italia folkloristica che cerca di diventare qualcosa d’altro e l’Italia sotto pressioni multinazionali capitalistiche, la fragilità dell’individuo ne fa una vittima facile. La consapevolezza della fragilità, e le sue possibili  soluzioni, staranno soprattutto nella rilettura di autori italiani, incluso Camilleri. 


[i] È d’obbligo menzionare che i diversi livelli di popolarità esistono in Italia e anche fuori dall’Italia. Ci sono paesi che hanno dimostrato l’interesse abbastanza profondo nelle opere di Camilleri: basti notare addirittura versioni diverse di più traduttori (tedeschi, francesi, spagnoli). Dall’altro lato, le opere di Camilleri non sono attecchite sul suolo nordamericano, nonostante le rispettose e rispettabili traduzioni di Stephen Sartarelli.  Ma questo è un argomento a parte.

Future Fiction 3: Unexpected endings? You bet!

True to its main aim, the publishing house Future Fiction keeps giving new authors from a variety of cultural and geographical backgrounds a platform from which their worthy and amazing works can find yet a wider readership. Rich Larson’s Ghost Girl / La ragazza fantasma is a perfect example of this (multi)cultural endeavour. Published in 2018, the slender volume contains four of Larson’s stories, previously published elsewhere, and collected here together with their Italian translations.

            As usual, I do not give the plot away, but some spoiler alert remains. My review here deals with the intricate sorts of dependencies and power relations between technology and human foibles as these are evinced from Larson’s stories.

            The eponymous story “Ghost Girl”, set in Bujumbura in an unspecified period, but after a political and economic upheaval of great magnitude, when criminals and police try to prevail in a disastrous situation. The society seems intent on getting the most gain out of any situation. Individuals who exhibit unusual features command high prices on the international market, and hence the “ghost”, i.e. albino girl who is highly sought-after. The advanced technology serves first and foremost the military. But there is a ray of hope in what could be called a souped-up drone/robot who has been modified from a killing machine to a protector and more. The drone then, in capable and good hands, can overcome the programming of violence for its own sake. But the story proposes that in certain conditions, also humans can abandon their thirst for revenge.

            “Let’s take this viral” should be a compulsory reading for all those who are taken in by the amazing possibilities offered by the ideas of Humanity + (ex-Transhumanism). The story takes place in a very distant future on an unspecified planet inhabited by units partly biological, endowed with amazing IQ, surrounded by all kinds of energy sources, whose every desire, whim, need can be easily fulfilled in kiosks, booths, vending machines. They do not worry about getting sick, about being broken, or malfunctioning, since there is a quick and easy solution to everything. They may upload to a probe to roam the universe. However, most of all, the units thrive on social recognition by other units, vie for being the first to start a trend, party as hard as they can, have sex anytime and almost anywhere, and get high on dope for days. Trying new things is their most desired activity. Cosmetic viruses are the prominently fashionable novelty, and the more visible and virulent the virus, the more desirable it is. Technology, then, is not a problem, what is problematic is the predictability of everything and the possibility of experiencing everything that is driving the lives of the units.  Under these conditions, can there be an ultimate experience? The story offers one possible answer.

            The third story entitled “Meshed” deals with the tug of war between a for-profit company (Nike) and a young athlete who exhibits a talent not seen before. The company needs to engage this young man in order to mesh him, i.e. to connect his nerves into a mesh which lets all those connected to it feel what the athlete feels when his muscles twitch and flex, when he scores a basket, in other words, to engage the audience neurally. Technology drives the profit, but it needs ever new sources, i.e. remarkable people of exceptional talent, capable of stretching the entertainment even further. Technology also allows those who hunt these new sources of entertainment to use all kinds of unseen aids (such as biofeedback) to understand the prospective advertising idol.  The nerve mesh makes it possible to override the central nervous system and not only track the person who is meshed, but also command it to speak or to be silent, to kill on command. But it also allows millions of other people to watch what the athlete sees and feel what he feels. Kids may dream about having their face plastered on a billboard and releasing their own signature shoes, but is there a limit to what they would be willing to do to sell themselves? The story gives one example of an answer to this question.

            “Your own way back” toys around with forms of survival after death: will the deceased’s consciousness continue as part of a clone, a digital hologram, a chip to be uploaded into a living relative? And who will make the final decision on the form in which the deceased will keep on being?  Clearly, money is still an issue, even in a technologically advanced future: not everyone can afford a clone that is a close replica of the deceased relative. And, if the link between the dead grandfather and a living grandson can be embodied through a chip implant, is the decision-making process easier? The possibility of consciousness surviving has have the option of the deceased to make the final decision himself/herself. What will that decision be? What are the criteria on which this decision is made? The story allows just for such a possibility.

            The language of the stories is true to the settings: police and rebel slang, business communication, techno-cool in-group vocabulary, young person’s expression. It is, however, deceptively simple: it hides connections and relations which make the stories rich and profound.   

            The Italian translations, prepared by Lorenzo Crescentini (a published author of sci-fi in his own right), do justice to the original stories. Of course, it is always difficult when one language has a specific meaning for a word which does not exist in the other, and it would be too easy to quibble with the translator’s choice. A case in point is the English word “scavenger” meaning “a person who looks for useful items in a trash heap”. Crescentini opts for cercatore and spazzino. Or “basement” which could be, but probably is not, seminterrato as far as the second story is concerned. A bit more problematic is the translation of some sentences with broken English, translated using standard Italian. A question that cannot be decided once and for all, is whether to translate personal names or not. In the second story, the protagonist’s name is Default (lots of choices in Italian: mancato, inadempiuto, difettoso, predefinito), the meaning of which is an integral part of the character’s behaviour. Perhaps the English term’s frequency of use in computer language makes the significance clear to the Italian reader. It is inevitable that some idioms may trick the translator, such as “bird’s eye view” which in the case of the second story, with all probability means (visuale) panoramica, not dagli occhi degli uccelli. The title “Your own way back” is rendered as Il ritorno, but perhaps Il ritorno a modo tuo would give a closer interpretation of the original. But these are just suggestions, and since translation is also a re-writing, the translator’s art must be taken into consideration.

            In conclusion, it is hoped that these four stories by Rich Larson find a multitude of readers both in English and in Italian. They are worth it for their enjoyment value, for their novelty, and for the interpretations of possible and probable futures we can look forward to.

Future Fiction 2: The natural in the artificial

Future Fiction is a publishing company (and more: see my previous post), specializing in publishing short science/speculative fiction from all over the world in the original and in an English translation. This time Francesco Verso collaborated with Francesco Manovani (another well-known author) on a jewel of a story, engaging, thoughtful, fast-paced and with surprising twists. The book contains not only the Italian original version and its English translation, but also an essay on immortality, building a bridge, in this case, between an aspect of the sci-fi story and philosophical musings.

The themes found in iMate are not far off from Verso’s fictional preoccupations found in his other works: the ethics, identity, desires and concerns of AI especially when the artificial is embodied a human form. The thin membrane that separates the “natural”, i.e. human, free, and the “artificial”, i.e., artifactual, enslaved, is thoroughly analyzed in this story, moreover, with a feminine spin. And, as is characteristic of Verso, puns abound and take the mind to other layers of meaning, not immediately perceived. Specifically, the “Mate” in the title is not only a 3D-printed flesh-and-blood biobot endowed with sophisticated intelligence and grown under strictest ethical and moral parameters living and working alongside humans. It is also check mate, i.e. triumph over human intelligence, hacking into the impregnable program the technicians who build iMates think invincible, all achieved by, yes, one of the iMates themselves. But it is also I mate, i.e. I procreate, and thus focusing on an aspect of human experience perhaps out of bounds to every but the most sophisticated AIs.

Janna, the protagonist in this story, tries her best to help her ill partner, David, to live safely and comfortably, by caring for him and by earning the money needed for his physical and psychological well-being. In the process, she is discovering her identity, her desires, and her view of the important things in life. Living in Sweden, where iMates are exceedingly expensive, she looks for better paying jobs elsewhere, to be able to afford one. Among all these preoccupations, she prioritizes her greatest desire: to have a child, even though David is against it. For the rest, you have to read the story, as I will not spoil the pleasure of discovery for you.

Suffice it to say that the story takes place in not a very distant future, building on technologies that are currently being experimented on. Even though they are extremely intelligent and endowed with feelings, sensitivities, desires, memories, iMates are built to serve the human “dominus” (master). They are not free or independent: they are always tethered unknowingly, invisibly, electronically, to the company that made them, which can make them faint at will and scan their inner workings. The society that is depicted is not much different from ours: there are incurable illnesses, car accidents, divorces, concerns around money, there is soccer, data theft, industrial secrets, legal restrictions, need for affirmative action and women’s rights; not to mention the fact that life expectancy is lower in Naples than it is in Sweden. All these are dealt with using technological props which blur the human “freedoms” and make people more like androids, living with unpleasant restrictions. But there is also friendship, love, altruism, not to mention egotism, competition, and class distinction. Mass communications are amazingly easy and ubiquitous, yet another aspect of our present situation, which may have unintended consequences. The story shows a happy ending for the iMates,perhaps leaving the humans evolving as they are wont to.

The essay which forms a part of the book (entitled “Immortal: why not? A philosophical reflection”) offers philosophical musings on immortality. It is not entirely related to the story, although it is argued by the author that iMates may be immortal: i.e., the idea of immortality attached to androids, not only to humans. The author, Maurizio Balistreri, discusses the pros and cons of human immortality, siding, of course, with the “for” side. He demolishes some obvious and usual assumptions of those who are against human immortality, such as the fact that whoever lives long is stuck to their old views and does not change/grow, or that there will not be enough food for all those who will live very, very long. Clearly, these are problems that will be solved in the future, using technology, of course. His essay raises one interesting issue, though, and that is the utilitarian view of human life: Balistreri builds his arguments on the fact that each one individual human contributes something to society. He does not, however, touch upon the fact that there is a hierarchy of types of contributions, and therefore, competition for what one particular society deems as important occupation/profession. The hierarchy is not written in stone, and it is perhaps too ambitious to attempt to wrestle with the variety of occupations that will be preferred in the far distant future, not to mention the fact that this utilitarian principle of human life is not the be all and end all of human life, however long.

In conclusion, iMate transports the reader into a possible future world inhabited by humans like us and by biobots (indistinguishable from humans) capable of doing much more than humans, but for that reason, having the same human preoccupations, needs, and wants, such as love, maternity, friendship, i.e. they are more than human. And in this way, the thin line between natural and artificial has disintegrated, at least for the biobots. This engaging story should form an indispensable part of the reading experience of everyone.

Future Fiction 1: An original Canada-Italy connection

CL

 

Future Fiction Publishing is the trailblazing brainchild of Francesco Verso, a multiple prize-winning novelist, publisher, cultural enabler. This initiative is an integral part of the Future Fiction Factory, which is comprised of the publishing house, theatrical production, Website, YouTube videos and other mass media offerings. Future Fiction has at least three specific aims: 1.  To make known short sci-fi fiction from all over the world to readers everywhere. Preference is given to those stories which represent possible and plausible dystopias and utopias; 2. To translate into Italian and into English works of speculative fiction form all over the world. These “dual language” books rely on skilled translators; 3. To engage all possible media to further the knowledge of others’ speculative fiction through works such as theatre pieces, graphic novels, music, etc. According to Francesco Verso, every country has an idea about its imaginative future which is projected into its own vision: publishing these works will further the biodiversity of ideas and will be an alternative to the vice-like hegemony of Anglo-American publishing.

To start a more nuanced analysis of the products published by Future Fiction, I have chosen to delve into the bilingual (Italian-English) version of Claude Lalumière’s Other persons/Altre persone (Future Fiction, 2018). Claude Lalumière is a Canadian author, blogger, reviewer, editor and co-editor, whose works have been showcased at various festivals and are taught at universities. The three short stories published by Future Fiction appeared in print elsewhere, but their original themes, interesting characters, and novel plots need a wider audience: it is no wonder then that they have been chosen to be translated into Italian and published in Italy, together with their English version. The three stories are Maxim Fujiyama and Other Persons/Maxim Fujiyama e altre persone, This is the Ice Age/Questa è l’era glaciale, The Ethical Treatment of Meat/Il trattamento etico della carne.

Rather than to reveal the plots and spoil your reading pleasure, what follows concentrates on the commonalities in the stories, as well as their differences, and on the overall effect of their plots.

  1. All three stories are set in not too distant future, which means that their development is plausible and possible. The stories do not contain AI or other types of complex technology, they rather concentrate on the means with which people react to dystopic situations. According to the on-line Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Canadian sci-fi in English is more literary, concerned with communication, and less high-tech than most US science fiction. This is speculative fiction of a particular type, focusing on human decisions to be made not on the basis of or using a given technology, but relying on people’s own inner strengths, ingenuity and showing their weaknesses and shortcomings in the process. Lalumière’s treatment of these topics is highly original and surprising. Vancouver and Montreal are the settings for the first two stories, and an unidentified Canadian city for the third.
  2. All three stories have as protagonists children and young people under 20 years of age. This is a fascinating, and not very common trait of sci-fi: young people’s reactions show inventiveness and unpredictability, so they offer an imaginative world that is perhaps closed to adults and therefore fiction writers find in them ample sources of inspiration. In the first two stories, the surrounding world has been destroyed, and Lalumière has the reader follow not only the characters’ footsteps, but, above all, their thinking processes and coping mechanisms. In the first story, Maxim, besides looking for food, keeps tallies on the number of dead, and those who he meets, making statistics one way of coping with his situation, which is pretty bleak. His other constant thought is his almost insistent question about the definition of “person”. Clearly, a most appropriate and always timely topic outside of fiction too. The end, amazing and unexpected, gives him the answer he so desires: a person is whoever loves us and we can love them back. In the second story, Mark and Martha, after a chance meeting in a city that has been destroyed, live together, attempting to somehow steer Mark’s brother, Daniel, away from trouble. Being younger, and an engaging speaker, Daniel gets into trouble by attracting followers to what amounts to become his religious cult, and, predictably, this cult, although it allows Daniel to cope with the dismal situation, promotes hatred and violence. For Mark and Martha, the way out seems to be leaving the city and settling in a rural area, which, too, is fraught with unwelcoming settlers and other troubles.  In the third story, the dystopic society is inhabited by humans who are obviously physically sick as well as psychologically unstable. Thriving on eating brains, they go to great lengths to raise this preciously exquisite food. In the process, acting  unethically can be questioned, but the society cannot extricate itself from its addiction to one particular food. Clearly,  Lalumière nudges us to consider our eating habits, too.

All three stories have as central themes the psychological reaction of the protagonists to a changed, altered, or otherwise different life circumstances and the world around them. Lalumière’s engaging style and unpredictable twists makes reading these stories a true pleasure.

As regards the translation, Fiorella Moscatello translated other works as well for Future Fiction from English. The Italian translation reads well, keeps the rhythm and speed close to the English, and communicates Lalumière’s intentions faithfully.  Of course, one could quibble with the interpretation of some phrasal elements (for ex., “The Rottweiler is being gentle as she licks the wound on his cheek, but her aim is broad.” The plausible interpretation is that the “aim” refers to the aim of the dog’s tongue while she’s licking the wound. Moscatello interprets it completely differently: La Rottweiler lecca delicatamente la ferita sulla guancia, ma continua a sorvegliare i dintorni. Or [“Fractals…] had erupted” interpreted as erano spuntati). Other turns of phrases are more English, such as “una volta che”, (un piatto) “delizioso”, or imitate the English syntax, such as “it’s natural for people to live…” rendered as e` naturale per le persone vivere… . But these do not detract from the completeness, flow, and engaging manner expressed in the English version.

In conclusion, Claude Lalumière’s stories in  Other Persons/Altre persone has found an excellent home in this bilingual version published by Future Fiction. It is hoped that these stories find also numerous readers, because they are worth reading: their themes invite a profound re-thinking of many aspects of our lives.

 

 

“American Gods” or Gods in America?

American_gods

In the Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods (Harper Collins, 2011), Neil Gaiman claims that readers either hate or love this book. Well, I neither love nor hate it, but I am not sitting on the fence: Gaiman’s artistry shows on every page, as well as his ability to treat serious matter with a special sense of humor,  and his vivid imagination. Above all, the book does make you think deeply about the role of gods in human cultures, about the definition of sacrifice, about the relationship between love and violence, about what makes America tick, about the world’s obsession with America, etc. In other words, having read it was not for naught. The frustration and disappointment that reading American Gods brings with it spring from the fact that the book tries to be too many kinds of narrations all at the same time: fantasy story, horror/gothic novel, mystery novel, spiritual travelogue, essay on what happened to gods once brought to America by immigrants, musing on what defines America, definition of sacrifice, love, etc. Nevertheless, these may be its strong points, given that the novel has won prestigious awards. Rather than outlining the plot and discussing the settings and characters, here is my take on Gaiman’s contribution – by way of fiction –  to the eternal human fascination with gods.

Notions of “god”: human and divine perspectives

Gaiman’s basic premise underlying the idea of “god” is that gods are human creations which, once accepted, grow in significance and this makes their power amplified. Therefore, humans allow themselves be molded by these “home-made” beings, and hence they relinquish their own free will. It is a magic circle. Throughout the book, the god characters predict the future, foresee the characters’ behavior (specifically that of Shadow, the protagonist) and therefore negate the idea of free will.  Since gods are created by humans, their characteristics are human (the full list would take too much space): arrogance, avarice, fear, gluttony, megalomania,  nymphomania, underhandedness, violence; they are standoffish swindlers, and indifferent tricksters. That’s the human side. From the divine perspective of the gods themselves, matters are a bit more complicated.  They thrive on sacrifice but they are also easily hurt. They must fight for survival and existence anyway they can. One of the gods, Loki, having a conversation with Shadow, puts it this way:

You got to understand the god thing. It’s not magic. Not exactly. It’s about focus. It’s about being you, but the you that people believe in. It’s about being the concentrated, magnified essence of you. It’s about becoming thunder, or the power of a running horse, or wisdom. You take all the belief, all the prayers, and they become a kind of certainty, something that lets you become bigger, cooler, more than human. You crystalize. … And then one day they forget about you, and they don’t believe in you, and they don’t sacrifice, and they don’t care, and the next thing you know you’re running a three-card monte game on the corner of Broadway and Forty-third.

Throughout the novel, the old gods, those that the immigrants brought with them on the boats, and on the planes, show their uneasy and by no means solid position in modern America: new gods are springing up which try to usurp the ancient divine forces, take away the offerings and deviate the sacrifices made to the old ones. The new gods are many and varied: money, power, cars, technology, TV, etc. When the old gods face the new ones in a ruthless, violent and brutal combat situation, each side sees the other as “demons, monsters, damned”. Both sides have a deathly fear of being ignored by the humans, of being abandoned, forgotten, rendered obsolete. Gaiman’s tongue-in cheek attitude receives its full force when he has Odin address the “armies” about to engage in battle. However, since they are tricksters on both sides, the reader suspects foul play even on the battlefield and beyond.

Whether by design or by the need to be inclusive, divinities include gods and goddesses from all corners of the earth:  Odin ad víly, dwarfs and Mama-ji, Thunderbird and Easter. Jesus does not appear in the book since, as the author notes in the Afterword, he plans to have Shadow meet him in another narration.

Sacrifice

Gaiman presents the stance of “tradition against innovation”. The old gods, those that require the physical human sacrifice, i.e., human death, especially of children or youth, are about to lose their position to the new gods. For these, sacrifice is of a different type: human time, attention, focus, interest, i.e., human life. Only the protagonist, Shadow, with whom we are journeying through America, seems to be able to offer both types of sacrifice. But Shadow sacrifices on many additional levels: he sacrifices his time by spending three years in jail, (for doing something illegal on the instigation of his wife, Laura), he sacrifices his love life by being faithful only to Laura (whose character is least elaborated, even though she appears on a number of occasions). So the notion of “sacrifice” is watered down, and almost of no use for a serious definition of its function. This mirrors the devaluation of the traditional native sacred places, most of which in America (and many parts of the world, I have to add), become simply destinations for buying a T-shirt or a souvenir trinket, with the new purpose of tourist visits: photography.

Sacrifices to the old gods were always accompanied by specific pre-determined  rites. with the worship of the old gods on the wane, rites too, transform their meaning to secular uses and become easily changed. The new gods do not care about rites at all.

America

All in all, America “is a bad land for gods” because the old ones are rendered obsolete and the new ones are quickly cast aside for the “next big thing”. There is no space for transformation, or an amalgam of the two,  which normally happens when gods of two different cultures meet: they become an amalgam of the familiar and the unfamiliar. (See, for ex., Joseph Campbell, Goddesses. Mysteries of the Feminine Divine. New World Library, 2013). Gaiman presents the vastness of America, its varied and disjointed cultures connected by the thread of money, violence, and technology. This could be the author’s warning: by dehumanizing, many aspects of the human are lost, first of which is gods. However, Gaiman, a trickster himself, does not mourn this fact. The question remains, therefore, what actually happens when the old gods disappear (beyond making human sacrifice a thing of the past).

In the novel, the very first sacrifice on American soil was the one offered to Odin by the Vikings of a native man. Despite the fact that human sacrifices to the old gods are decreasing,  the tone of violence that is part and parcel of American colonization and culture is only increasing: in the novel, physical violence is almost never of the sacred kind.

In conclusion, the novel gives Gaiman a platform on which to use all of his talents. Given that the author skillfully compels the readers to follow the vicissitudes of the protagonist, new ideas are created constantly. One final thought: perhaps the title American Gods does not really reflect the novel’s content: the book is more about (Some) Gods in America.

Ferocity, home, heritage

homegoing

If ever there was need to describe in words the various incarnations of evil and hate people show for each other and toward themselves, this need has been satisfied by Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (Penguin, 2016).  The novel follows the history of 2 families (through 8 generations) of Asante/Fante peoples both in Ghana and in the United States, where some were brought as slaves as early as the late 1700s.

                The stories of the characters offer a quick, honest, and simple read. The themes of these stories  echo themes found in most narratives which deal with the search for ancestors, search for the purpose of one’s existence, and the role of the family, subject matters dear to second, third, fourth generations of “Americans”*: the case of “Italian American” narratives comes to mind readily. The elaborations of three ideas stand out from the novel’s flow: the iterations of ferocity, the lack of a solid definition of home, and the role of ancestors.

                The iterations of ferocity, evil, and hate span the whole gamut of human experience shown in the novel: mother against children, step-mother against step-daughter, husband against wife, chief of the tribe against his subjects, tribe against tribe, British against Asante, “Americans” against “African Americans”*, men against women, etc. Even though some characters in the novel attempt to offer a different reaction to violence and evil (such as suggesting not to increase the number of weapons, or falling in love with someone who may be regarded as “the enemy”), in the final analysis, the existence of ferocity and evil for ever is almost guaranteed by the novel. Some evil, mostly realized as hate (and therefore spawning violence), has roots in culture (the Asante tradition of not trusting an individual who is an orphan of an unknown mother), other ferocity stems from the feeling of superiority (Asante tribes feeling superior to other tribes – and vice versa, the British feeling superior to the Asante – and vice versa), other evil originates in exploitation, racism, discrimination, dehumanization (African slaves in the US a hundred years ago, “African Americans” in New York today).  There is, moreover, another type of violence, that of being perpetrated on oneself, and in the novel, this is the one that results from the economic, political, cultural environment in which the individual lives: as one character says, “I am nobody from nowhere”: a statement which determines her uneasy relationship with the tribe. But the novel is not all about viciousness, ferocity, hatred, violence; there is also love between men and women, parents and children, grandchildren and grandmothers. This reciprocal love, however, does not reach tribal or national levels.

                Despite the title (“Homegoing”), “home” is an elusive concept throughout the novel, never receiving a full treatment. No character seems to have a “home” in the dictionary definition of the term, i.e.” a place where one lives permanently”. The closest to “home” is of course the nostalgic feeling for a traditional way of life in an Asante village, but one can be uprooted even from there by a rival tribe looking for slaves, or a British slave trader, or a desire to emigrate to the US.  The uprootedness is exacerbated by modernity, where ex-slaves, “African American” mine workers, poor “African Americans” reel as corks in the enormity of economic, political, social, psychological ocean.  So “homegoing” means going back to purported ancestral home, even if that may be vastly different in reality from the nostalgic, spiritual, attractive notion the homegoing characters have of it. The search for the ancestral home does not include the idea that this is the village that “evil had built”, as one character claims.

                The role of the ancestors and ancestral land is crucial in the novel. Only through ancestors and ancestral lands characters can come to terms with themselves, their fears (of the ocean, of fire),  their lack of motivation (of completing their PhD), their search for love. Interestingly enough, this role of ancestry and ancestral lands is eerily similar to that found by a study of second-generation “Italian Americans”: according to the Italian immigrant parents of the 1940s, their children have been pushed out of the paradise of the ancestral land where everything was like paradise and everything was in its place, so the experience was meaningful. In the novel, this picture of the ancestral paradise sustains the imagination and builds meaningfulness into the “homeless” characters’ lives. In this sense, “homegoing” has the function of supporting their understanding of identity enveloped in mystery and spiritualism. Ancestors, of course, being full of mystery, increase their status as image-makers, and echoes of spiritualism span centuries: spirits of mothers who, subjected to visions of fire bringing death and destruction, destroy the lives of their children and their own;  spirits of slaves who died during the trans-Atlantic voyage, whose laments are heard across the centuries and are part an parcel of the water in the ocean.

                In conclusion, the novel is a good, fast read. At times, however, it has the quality of an anthropological study of a culture whose details elude the researcher, but these are supplanted by the author’s skillful interweaving of  magical and spiritual threads. If art is the search for the understanding of oneself, and verbal art makes this search so much more varied, it is not entirely clear whether the author has found the route to herself and her identity through the novel. Perhaps the sequel to this novel may answer this query. Admittedly, the most interesting aspect of the novel is left unsaid: the fate of the two characters who in fact engage in “homegoing”, albeit ending up in a resort at Cape Coast, where they finally let go of their fears (she of fire, he of the ocean) rather than finding solace and answers at a village family compound.    

*The quotation marks in words and phrases such as “American”, “African American”, “Italian American” simply denote the frustrating vagueness of these notions which are devoid of historical, sociological, political, psychological, or cultural context.

Carnegie’s deficiencies

The life of one of the robber barons, Andrew Carnegie (businessman, steel manufacturer, philanthropist, writer, father) can serve as a perfect warning example to those whose ambition is to become great capitalists (nowadays better defined as billionaire entrepreneurs). Although he was a man of action, a particular do-gooder, and towards the end of his life, a promoter of world peace, his achievements do have shortcomings gleaned from his Autobiography* and also from David Nasaw’s biography**.

Andrew Carnegie by [Nasaw, David]

The following are not book reviews; the analysis is based on what Carnegie himself and Nasaw wrote, but I tried to read between the lines and therefore the observations are all mine.

What are then Carnegie’s deficiencies? The three most apparent ones have to do with 1. His education 2. His relationship to labor 3. His wealth.

  1. Carnegie and education

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) had enjoyed only a few years of formal primary education, due to the need to help the family financially right after his immigration to the US when he was 13. However, all his life, he read widely, wrote ceaselessly, did his best to associate with publishers, university presidents as well as professors, statesmen, and what he called “leading families”. He had an excellent memory, honed during the few years of elementary education in Dunfermline (Scotland), and he was proud of being able to recite the poetry of Burns and selections from Shakespeare whenever occasions allowed it. When, in 1882, Carnegie met Herbert Spencer, his “infatuation and obsession” (Nasaw p. 226)  with the English philosopher began in earnest. Spencer’s philosophy reaffirmed Carnegie’s lack of belief in theology, and was instrumental in creating a solid justification for his money-making efforts. Having Spencer as his beacon, Carnegie’s view was shut to other philosophical possibilities, and this is his first deficiency. Clearly, it stems from the lack of formal and coherent education, which would have allowed him to see the negative side of Spencer’s views and look for alternate explanations for the meaning of life.

2. Carnegie and labor

Both meanings of labor enter the discussion here: Carnegie’s view of his employees or workers and his view of work in general. It is obvious from the manner in which the strike at his Homestead steel mill was handled that he was not only far removed from the nitty-gritty of workers’ woes, but he also was unwilling to face the striking men. As he was happy to repeat, he was away in Scotland when the strike happened (which resulted in deaths); what he never mentioned is that he would have had time enough to come and see for himself, since the strike kept going for some months. Needless to say, individual workers were not important to his overall view of the industrial process. He may have extolled their work habits, but there was callousness in the way he looked at labor “in the abstract, just like another commodity” (Nasaw p. 178). And this is the second of Carnegie’s deficiencies: along with Spencer’s view of inevitable progress made on the backs of the toiling masses, his callous stance does not allow the humanization of workers. Furthermore, he did not deem individual workers good enough to trust with financial donations, which, according to him, they would only squander in food and frivolities.  In The Gospel of Wealth, he openly stated that the wealth of men like him must be shared with the community, not with individuals.

                It is generally assumed that Carnegie’s financial success was the result of his ruthless operations in dealing with competitors, establishing monopolies, underselling other industrialists. His own explanation for his success, however, is twofold: on the one hand, he claims that he achieved wealth thanks to the fact that he hired men who were specialists and therefore who handled the business much better than he would have.  On the other hand, as he himself wrote, “The community created the millionaire’s wealth” (Nasaw p. 167), possibly with luck intervening in the process for being at the right place (Pittsburgh), at the right time (late 1800s), when railroads were expanding Westward (Nasaw p. 168). But the most fascinating point is yet another: Carnegie never toiled for his money. In fact, “What was most remarkable about Carnegie’s newfound success as a capitalist was how little it required of him. At each stage of his business career from bobbin boy to steelmaker, he had worked less and earned more. Since moving to New York City, in his middle thirties, and settling into a state of semiretirement, his income had increased exponentially. Carnegie had no delusions at all about the virtues of hard work. He avoided the topic of “diligence” in his lectures, speeches, and articles on “how to succeed in business”. On the contrary, he took great pride in his own rather idiosyncratic work habits.” (Nasaw p. 184). This is yet another part of the second deficiency, his sheer ease of doing “work”, and the utter fortune in not having to actually toil for his money.

                It must be said that he thoroughly enjoyed his wealth through leisurely activities, such as travelling often and especially to Scotland; giving presents to his friends and business associates, as well as to people from whom he required something in return.

3. Carnegie and wealth

The third deficiency in Carnegie’s life points to the fact that he must have realized, tragically, close to the end of his life, that money (however plentiful), really cannot buy world peace, at least not in the way he went about it. This tycoon firmly believed that “A sunny disposition is worth more than fortune” (Autobiography, p. 8), and his favorite saying was “It will get better tomorrow”. Despite his unbounded optimism, Carnegie died unhappy, closed in his mutism, disillusioned from the way the world hurled itself into war (1914), without  politicians enthusiastically following his suggestions for peace.

                In conclusion, Carnegie’s life offers a rich mine of ideas about the foundations of greedy and contentious capitalism which should be a warning example to those who may wish to become capitalists themselves. His shortcomings stemmed from his lack of formal and coherent education, his unwillingness to see the other side of Spencer’s philosophy, and his unchecked optimism with which he used money to achieve his goals. The fact that there are more than a thousand libraries and hundreds of institutes of research which carry his name means that part of his dream is still alive, but it is doubtful whether today, with internet, web 2.0, and all the technological advancements, libraries would be an appropriate route for a millionaire to spend his money for and in the community.  

___

*Andrew Carnegie, The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and The Gospel of Wealth. With a New introduction by Gordon Hunter. Signet, 2006.

** David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie. Penguin, 2006.

Physics and reality: yet another devaluation of everything human?

The enormous amounts of scientific knowledge about the cosmos achieved by recent advances in theoretical physics are impossible to summarize. And yet, Frank Wilczek’s  A Beautiful Question. Finding Nature’s Deep Design (Penguin, 2016) attempts to wrap up this knowledge in a neat package. It is a thought-provoking book. It is given that mathematical equations are beautiful and it is a bit of a mathematical common sense to say that beautiful mathematical equations mirror nature’s beautiful design, a notion that the author repeats quite frequently. This review does not deal with theoretical physics as a discipline, but it touches upon considerations that make the connections between physics and art or philosophy enormously unprofitable, if done simply to set up a terminus ad quem – i.e. physics or mathematics – and then find artistic/philosophical examples which mirror this terminus. This book is a perfect example of how physics does not help answering the problems of the human condition; it does, however, avoid dealing with many problematic areas focusing on a specific set of questions.

Wilczek mentions Plato often, in fact, his main purpose is to show that Real and Ideal are in some type of a relationship, sometimes of equality, other times the “Real does not live up to the Ideal” (p. 63).  Let’s take a closer look at the following Wilczek’s statement: “In his central intuition, Plato was quite correct – indeed, more profoundly correct than he possibly could have known. Our naturally given view of the world is but a shadowy projection of the world as it truly is.” (p. 62) This stance, I believe, is at the heart of the problems the world faces today, from climate change to plastic and other toxic pollution, to wars, fake news, etc. Why is it not possible to accept our human relationship with things in the world and be more aware of their fragility, and accept the responsibility which our agency bears towards the natural and social world? It is a complete cop-out saying we live in “a shadowy projection”; this hides the malaise of not being able to cope with the weight of human obligation towards other humans and towards nature. It is natural then to set up an Ideal (“the world as it truly is”) which is not affected by human agency (even at the sub-quantum level). If a concept such as an Ideal state is set up, reality (whose existence is proven as soon as someone kicks you in the behind!) is not taken seriously. Wilczek keeps piling up the notion on many an occasion: “Through disciplined imagination, we transcend the Cave of ignorant sensation.” (p. 72); also in quoting Alexandre Koyre’’s purpose of the Scientific Revolution “To abolish the world of the <more or less,> the world of qualities and sense perception, the world of appreciation of our daily life, and to replace it by the (Archimedean ) universe of precision, of exact measurement, of strict determination.” (p. 80-81). And yet, this world of more or less supports the human world. And why would you want to “abolish the world of appreciation of our daily life”? That’s the crux of the matter – we do not really appreciate our daily life. But no matter how much Wilczek tries to pull into his “equations” artistic works which also rely on some type of symmetry, the result is still an abyss between science and humanity/ the humanities, in other words, reaffirming C.P. Snow’s suggestion of “the two cultures”. That there is an inherent unsuitability  in trying to reconcile Wilczek’s physical/mathematical symmetry and symmetry in visual arts or music is clear when one takes into account art with no symmetry or modern a-tonal and a-melodic music. He himself ends the book with two thoughts that should constitute the first two sentences of his next book. Considering, among other dualities, the duality Beautiful and Not Beautiful, he offers these two aspects:

•          The physical world embodies beauty.

•          The physical world is home to squalor, suffering, and strife.

And, clearly then, he is forced to end the book by reporting that

In neither aspect should we forget the other.

But he did forget! No mention is made, in the whole book,  of the underlying “bosons of squalor”, or “neutrinos of suffering”, or “fermions of strife”. The question is then how to reconcile disciplines which thrive on predicable data, facts, events, i.e. “beauty”, with those disciplines which examine human life with its unpredictable chaos, i.e. “ugliness”. Obviously, Einstein’s quest to find an answer to his question is still relevant: were there constraints circumscribing the creation of the universe? i.e. predictability within limits?  And, taking a human perspective, Are human choices limited to such an extent that human actions/ thoughts/ feelings/ sentiments are predictable? Again, predictability within limits? The answer, from the physical sciences, is a resounding yes. So why do humans have to live with “squalor, suffering, and strife”, if options for eradicating these are available within a circumscribed, predictable, and symmetrical universe? Wilczek, in citing examples of what he calls “symmetry” in art, forces a straight-jacket on art (albeit a beautiful, symmetrical straight-jacket), and makes art simply mirror/illustrate the advances of sciences. “The two cultures” still remain distinct and separate, with the idea that everything hangs on the sciences, and, more specifically, on mathematics (numbers). His example of “all things are number” is appalling and superficial: one day he lost his computer and all the data in it. But he had all his data backed up, and within a few days he had a new laptop with everything restored. All those things had been encoded in numbers  (strings of 0s and 1s). “ It occurred to me that one could hardly ask for a more tangible, direct, or impressive demonstration of the truth of Pythagoras’s vision:

All Things Are Number.” (p. 323-24) In his example, things are not numbers, things are translated into numbers, mediated by numbers. And yet, the quantification of everything is not possible: it is true, we can quantify the intensity of emotion, but we cannot quantify emotion; we can quantify the number of ideas, but we cannot quantify ideas themselves. All is not numbers.

In conclusion, this book is a perfect example of how scientists do not consider the consequences of their findings on human society. The physical world may embody beauty, and it  may be home to squalor, suffering, and strife, but “In either aspect should we forget the other” is not illustrated in the pages of Wilczek’s work. The book underlines the distance between the sciences and the humanities, and it shows clearly that if the scientist offers a look at the arts, and philosophy, that look is skewed by his scientific vision, and a few examples of the arts and philosophy are simply nice illustrations of scientific truths. In his view, not only all things are number (at what level of abstraction?), but numbers are reflected in all things. And this is patently not true and not cogently argued in the book.  However, A Beautiful Question does, more than any other book, put on the pedestal the absolute fragility of life, the astonishing manner in which “matter” in the cosmos, and, therefore, in us, came to be what it is today, and the astounding variety of physical entities that make cosmos and life in it possible.