The first time listening to Bob Dylan’s songs in Blood on the Tracks (1975), I thought I could never be able to enjoy this kind of music. It sounds harsh and raw, too folksy, and heavily narrative. Then one day, while waiting for a class to begin, I suddenly craved the tunes in Blood on the Tracks. I had to sit down and listen to the first few songs of the album immediately. I have no idea why it happened but my liking for Dylan started just like that. His voice, his music hold a strong gravity that commands my attention. Like any great artist, he has the power to deliver us into a different world; a world so enchanted that we want to be a part of it: at times, we want to just be surrounded by the sound, let our mind flow freely, and think less. At others, we want to listen to it carefully, to see what’s in it that makes us want more.
I have wanted to write about Bob Dylan for a long time, but I don’t know how to begin, and I always wonder whether my writing could give him justice. I have searched for books and articles written about his music and started reading his biography. I have followed several guides to his works, which are usually a list of his most “important” albums. Then today I thought why not just listening to his music chronologically. Just as when I like some fiction authors, I will start reading their works, as many as I can; or when I like particular painters, I will look at their artworks carefully before reading any critical works. So my journey with Dylan begins by looking at his debut album Bob Dylan (1962).
The released album features eleven folk standards and traditional songs, and only two original compositions: “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody.” He said in an interview in 2000 that he was hesitant to reveal too much of himself in this first album. Here, in the product of the twenty-year-old Dylan, already we encountered very Dylanian materials: the perfect synthesis of the voice and the instruments, the smooth yet strange harmony of sound and lyrics, the poetic of the lyrics emerged from his arrangement, a sense of ultimate freedom—from the narrative as well as the sound, and the unpretentious reverie—in short, all the materials were there, and a decade later, he will polish and push them to the next level. In this album was a young artist who was very confident of his talent and has started using his devices with ease.
As I listen to this album several times, I realize that what I like best in this album, as well as in his future works, is the incredible ability to evoke imagery using music and word, or more precisely, word here is nothing but one of the sound utilized in his arrangement—word is music itself. Imagery is everywhere in Dylan’s two original songs, and they are imagery of ordinary things, such as:
So one mornin’ when the sun was warm
I rambled out of New York town
Pulled my cap down over my eyes
And headed out for the western skies
So long, New York
Howdy, East Orange (“Talkin’ New York”)
I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings. (“Song to Woody”)
Mundane as they are, when being infused in the arrangement of Dylan, they hold irresistibly poetic power.
While map is usually thought of as cartographic material standing alone on its own right, in the Dutch Golden Age appears a painting trend in which map is repeatedly depicted in the background of interior scene. Various seventeenth-century Dutch painters such as Willem Buytewech, Dirck Hals, Gerard ter Borch, Piete de Hooch, Jan Steen, Jacob Ochtervelt, Nicholas Maes include depictions of real maps in their artworks. The finest examples of this trend appear in Johannes Vermeer’s works. Much has been said about the cartographical sources of the painted maps, especially in Vermeer’s oeuvre. By drawing on the Dutch’s communal identity at the time of forming nationhood, the artistic life of the society—collecting and displaying art among different classes, and the Dutch’s distinctive stance on art—a mode of description, I wish to draw attention to the Dutch impulse to map the outer world and display the knowledge in interior space, perhaps in order to situate oneself in the world and to feel more at home in one’s space.
Nascent National Identity
The first Dutch artist who incorporated map into painting is Willem Buytewech (1591-1624). A specialist in the merry company subject, he worked at Haarlem from around 1612 to 1617, following that, he spent the rest of his career in his native Rotterdam. One of his five merry company pictures includes a map with the eligible title HOLANDIA (see fig. 1). The painted map is comparable to the map of Holland and the Seventeen Provinces by the Dutch engraver Jan Pietersz. Saenredam (1565-1607) (fig. 2). Saenredam’s map, engraved in 1589, was quite popular in the seventeenth century, appearing in at least three publications. As many maps made in this time, the decorative border and the texts were produced separately from the map. Except for the border ornamentation, Buytewech’s map is identical to Saenredam’s map in term of content. The map is oriented with the south at the top as designing maps with north at the top was not yet a standard. The painter’s coloring scheme follows conventional cartographic materials of the period. For instance, blue is assigned to the water area, while green, yellow, and red are used to distinguish different provinces.
The painted map is situated in a central position, on a wall of a narrow symmetrical space, accompanied a group of extravagantly-dressed people. The bearded figure on the left bears the traits of Hans Wurst, the figure of comic gluttony on Fat Tuesday, the last day of feasting before the ritual fasting in Christian tradition. To the left of Hans Wurst, a man holds a goblet of wine, while a figure next to him holding out a pisspot, mockingly prepares for the wine to revert. To the right, one man smokes pipe, and the other holds his hat dangerously close to the fire. The maid behind them carries a dish of artichokes, which are renowned for their power to aid sensual appetites. The group collectively represents various human foibles and follies, gaudy attiring, gluttony, and excessive indulgence. In that context, the map behind the company serves more than a decorative purpose. In the traditional vanitas theme, the map may be considered a didactic object, pointing to the ephemerality and the futility of the material life. It could also act as a humanist ambivalence, displaying the fine craft of man as “a badge of pride,” but at the same time denoting the vulnerability of the achievement.
Pictures after these festive scenes often carry mildly moralizing connotation about the idle, newly rich children of a harder-working generation. As the newly-founded Republic became more prosperous, so grew rapidly the middle class known as the burgher. The burgher was not simply a bourgeois, for the burgher was a citizen first and homo oeconomicus, or economic man second. The display of a map of one’s own territory in a space of the burgeoning middle class is an assertion of nascent national identity.
Buytewech’s merry company was painted in a period when many lakes north of Amsterdam such as the Purmer, Schermer, and Beemster were being drained and reclaimed for agricultural use. The high rate of erosion and the need for arable land gave rise to reclamation plans, and windmills were used to pump these lakes dry. The changing boundary between the sea and the land is perhaps also emphasized with the inverted color scheme of the map in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl (see fig. 12 – 13): luminescent blue is assigned to land, while earthly tone to water. In a country where one‐third of the land lies below mean sea level and without dunes, dikes, and pumps, sixty-five percent of the land would be under water at high tide, the relationship with water has never been easy.
The forming of the Dutch nationhood was inseparable from the struggle with rising waters and the primal flood. Simon Schama even describes the Dutch society as having a “diluvian personality.” Seaborne disaster epics sold very well in the seventeenth century. The most well-known work of all was the journal published in 1646 by Willem Ysbrandtszoon Bontekoe’s (1587 – 1657), a skipper in the Dutch East India Company (see fig. 3). The journal recounts his voyage with the Nieuw Hoorn, the shipwreck, his adventure to Java, and his subsequent years of service in East Asia. The book, illustrated with pictures, was a bestseller in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, being reprinted seventy times before 1800. The story follows a quite moralistic formula: good fortune was to be “struck by retributive calamity from which only the virtuous and the heroic might escape.” A fire at sea in the Sunda Straits in the East Indies in November 1619 caused the gunpowder magazine to explode and sink the ship (see fig. 4-5). The skipper, who was blown high into the sky and then down into the ocean, somehow miraculously escaped.
Memories of epic inundations in the late Middle Ages, and written and oral folklore—fables, ballads and fairy tales conditioned the sixteenth-century Dutch to consider themselves as “ordained and blessed survivors of the deluge.” Calvinist preachers of course seized onto this and connected the aquatic struggle with scriptural significance. Calamities were portentous in a sinful world, and from the retribution, a cleaner and better world was to be reborn. The Noah analogy was here transposed to suit the Dutch self-image as God’s new chosen people. Buytewech’s map and his jovial scene indicate the classic connotations of human follies before Noah’s Flood and transfer a moral message to contemporary circumstances of the new Republic.
Collecting and Displaying Pictures
Beside the map in Buytewech’s epicurean scene, painted maps are usually found displaying in interiors of the burghers. Jacob Ochtervelt (1634 – 1682), a genre painter and a contemporary of Vermeer, for example, painted a map to accompany the scene of a finely-dressed lady playing the virginal (see fig. 6). The man on her left, presumably her husband, is playing a string instrument while reading score from a book held out by a young woman, possibly their daughter. The dogs, usually read as fidelity symbol, are playfully chasing each other. The spotless floor, the clean wall, and an emphasis on horizontal and vertical compositions add a sense of familial harmony and domestic contentment to the scene. Like the map in Buytewech’s merry company, the map in Ochtervelt’s painting serves a vanitas theme, reminding viewers of the transience of pleasure and the vanity of human knowledge.
The appearance of the wall map in the middle-class’ interiors comes as little surprise as it was the class that was most hankering for prints and decorations in the seventeenth century. As the Republic became more affluent around 1600, particularly after the Twelve Years Truce in 1609, the market for pictures grew rapidly. Artists, before being able to sell pictures in the markets, had to pay a fee to be apprenticed under masters in a strict guild system. Once registered and enrolled as masters, they could produce and sell art and assume apprentices. Art in general was sold to an anonymous market, either directly through the studio or through an art dealer. Prints and paintings were sold in bookshops, inns, at kermis stalls, and Guild-organized exhibitions. Unlike other European markets, the Dutch picture market was virtually absent of Church patronage since Calvinists opposed the use of altarpieces and depictions of God and Christ in worship. They did, however, allow the use of images for didactic purposes or decoration in secular space.
Picture price varied greatly. Oil paintings on wood or canvas had a wide range of price; size and the quality of the frame were taken into account of the artwork value. Low-life scenes, barrack room, brothel scenes, interior genre, and “maidservant” pictures seem to be the cheapest. Small landscapes could also be cheap, while still lifes varied greatly according to size and subject. Portraits and history paintings were the most expensive; commissioned portraits historiés, the depiction of known individuals in the guise of historical figures, were the most expensive of all. The picture market catered to consumers of different income and social status, but most pictures were bought by the burghers, “from modest artisans to wealthy regents.” They hang pictures throughout their homes, the finest in living rooms and others in bedrooms, halls, and even kitchens.
As the burghers became more wealthy, especially after the Peace of Munster in 1648, they built larger homes to be able to collect and display more pictures. The doll’s house built by a contemporary woman, Petronella Oortmans-de la Court (1624-1707), is a window into the display of paintings in wealthy households (see fig. 7). Most paintings with elaborate frames or of large scale are displayed in the upstairs living room, but the first and the third floors are decorated with pictures too. The doll’s house by itself is a piece of miniature collection, in which De la Court commissioned 1,600 pieces of furniture and paintings and 28 dolls.
Significantly, the Dutch did not buy pictures exclusively for pure decoration or artistic value. Many collectors gathered drawings and prints primarily to amass knowledge about the world’s diverse cultures, its flora and fauna, and its geography. In Amsterdam, the Catholic lawyer Laurens van der Hem (1621-1678), for example, collected printed maps, landscape prints, portraits, and historical scenes to create 29 volumes about the world and its history. Van der Hem commissioned drawers and colorists as well as included texts to enrich his encyclopedic work. The Atlas van der Hem was quite well-known and attracted distinguished foreign visitors. Its geographical coverage reflected the far-reaching range of the Dutch trading empire. A map of America in the atlas, for instance, shows ships with the Netherlands flag approaching the coasts of North America and Brazil, indicating the country’s dominions oversea (see fig. 8). Particularly interesting are the views on the top of the map and the various depictions of the natives on the two sides. The natives are portrayed as rather primitive—tribal, naked, warlike, and engaging in human sacrifice (see fig. 9). Their bodies are represented as strong and muscular.
Not all owners of pictures were as affluent as De la Court and van der Hem, nor pictures were only found accompanying the leisured middle-class as in Buytewech’s merry company and Ochtervelt’s music making. To the amazement of the English traveler Peter Mundy, the shops of Dutch butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, and cobblers were decorated with a picture or two—suggesting the unusually prevalent activity of art collecting in the Republic. Quiringh van Brekelenkam’s Interior of a Tailor’s Workshop shows the displaying of picture in the home of the craftsman (see fig. 10). A cheap paper map is secured on the wall with a couple of nails. It looks tattered and worn-out, keeping with the other objects in the household such as the old book on the shelf and the fading wall paint. Another picture of still life on the wall indicates the family is able to get by with the craft. The workshop overall looks well-kept, and the work mess is present but under control, and the materials for cloth making are relatively in order.
Quiringh van Brekelenkam (1622 – c. 1669) was born in Zwammerdam, where his father worked as a tailor. The shops of tailors and cobblers, the very environment that Brekelenkam grew up with, were depicted thoroughly in his art; from 1653 to 1664 he produced around twenty-five variants of the theme. It may be important to point out that Brekelenkam was active from 1648 to 1668 in Leiden, the center of the Dutch textile industry. The textile industry boomed in the Netherlands and particularly in Leiden between 1580 and 1660, thanks to the flow of textile workers emigrated from the Southern Netherlands in the face of religious persecution. With the thriving industry came various problems. Leiden was possibly the most “socially stratified” of Holland towns, with a large number of textile workers living in crowded residences and subjected to wage cutting. Women and girls comprised about thirty percent of the labor force in Leiden and were “worked harder for less.” Painters who depicted artisans at work like Brekelenkam might consider what to leave out and what to record for an audience that was predominantly middle-class collectors. His picture therefore might correspond to the urban audience’s perception of its own society as “ordered, civilized, and preposterous.” Nonetheless, the painting is still telling of the pre-industrial era, with the youngster contributing to the labor force and the family working together to produce goods. The two boys seat on a platform with the father, sewing clothing by the sunlight entering from the window. On the right, the mother is cooking with the vessel, suggesting the mixing of the living with the working space, unlike a burgher’s interior which is devoid of work and labor. The dilapidated map on the wall perhaps embodies the family’s struggle to make end meet in an unsettling world.
Be it in the middle-class or the working-class interiors, the wall map found in many genre paintings attested to the dynamic art market in the Netherlands. It were the Dutch who were the first to seriously produce maps as wall-hangings. Maps were also produced and disseminated widely, and the Republic was the world leader in cartographic production. But perhaps more fundamentally, maps were collected and displayed in the same manner as paintings because of the close affinities of art and cartography in the seventeenth century: “map makes on us as a piece of painting in its own right,” as Alpers said. Maps are meant to provide us with quantitative data of places and the relationship between places, while landscape pictures give us some quality or feel of the place: one is science, the other is art; one is the work of cartographers, the other artists. Yet, this distinction is not clear-cut for the Dutch in the seventeenth century, “when maps were considered to be a kind of picture and when pictures challenged texts as a central way of understanding the world.” Seventeenth-century Dutch artists such as Pieter Saenredam, Gaspar van Wittel, and the Visscher family, were employed in mapmaking; maps were often sold by the same dealers who sold other kinds of prints. Maps were very often adorned with city views and figure portrayals as we have seen in a print from the Van der Hem atlas (fig. 8). The atlas by itself unproblematically combined maps, views, and drawings to create a personal view of the world. The Leo Belgicus map by Claes Jansz Visscher was not only informative because of its geographical data, but also visually striking because of the lion form imposing onto the seventeen provinces (see fig. 11).
The mapping-picture relationship dates back to at least Ptolemy’s Geography. Ptolemy distinguishes between geography, which concerns measurements or mathematics and the entire world at large, and chorography, which concerns descriptions and particular places. He connects the skills of the mathematician to geography and those of the artist to chorography, and restricts his work to the former. This distinction, however, was again blurred in the Netherlands. Dutch artists were accustomed to printmaking, inscriptions, labels, and calligraphy—suggesting a close relationship between picture and writing, both possessing the descriptive power. In a broad sense, mapping shows an impulse to record or describe the land in pictures—an impulse shared by surveyors, artists, printers, and the general public in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. More narrowly, mapping could be defined as encompassing picturing and mapmaking, as producing pictures with descriptive interest that integrate the landscape and geographical forms such as maps and topographical views.
The trend of painting map in interior scenes reached a new level in Vemeer’s art, especially in Officer and Laughing Girl (see fig. 12 – 13) and The Art of Painting (see fig. 14 – 15). While other painters simply indicate there is a map on the wall, Vermeer always renders the maps in precision and even captures the print materials. For practical reason, the detailed rendering of the map might have had to do with selling price. The paintings of Vermeer, Gerand Dou, and Frans van Mieris, uncommonly elaborate and polished in techniques and possibly taken longer than average to paint, fetched as high as several hundred guilders, compared to averaging twenty guilders for a less meticulous picture.
But Vermeer’s elaborate maps are important among the numerous painted maps because they speak powerfully for a pictorial mode of Dutch art—a mode of description. Significantly, with much time and effort devoted to rendering the map, Vermeer claims he himself is a mapmaker. In The Art of Painting, Vermeer signed his name I-Ver-Meer on the border of the map meeting the bottom text and the blue cloth of the model, who represents Clio the muse of history (see fig. 16). We know that Vermeer bases his painted map on the no longer extant map of the Seventeen Provinces attributed to Nicolaus Visscher. But in the Dutch pictorial mode of description, Vermeer’s claim the painted map is of his own making is not presumptuous, as in seventeenth-century Dutch art, resemblance is less important than distinction. Looking at the world in resemblance is problematic as it introduces confused identities; it is the discrimination between things and individual identities that matters in Dutch art.
The Dutch artist and writer Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627 – 1678) dedicated one chapter of his magnum opus, the Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World (1678), to talk about resemblance. In the chapter, Hoogstraten gathers examples from texts and real life. One account that is particularly suggestive is the story of a nobleman riding through the street of London attracted a large crowd of followers because he was mistaken for a king. What one can deductively infer from Hoogstraten’s chapter is that Dutch art by turning away from resemblance desires to “preserve the identity of each person and each thing in the world.” Italian art, on the country, tends to depart from individuality in favor of general human traits and general truths: resemblance to certain ideals of appearance, of action, or between things was “constitutive of truth.” Interestingly enough, centuries later in Germany, the concept of resemblance resurfaces in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), in what he terms “family resemblance.” In Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, all members of the family resemble each other even though they do not share a single common feature. Resemblance is also at the core of visual recognition in today’s technology as we see that convolutional neural networks could group together images of visual similarity.
The importance of distinction in Dutch art is most illustrative in a print after Pieter Saenredam (see fig. 17). The etching represents several cross sections cut through an old apple tree growing on a farm outside of Harleem. Saenredam makes the image to refute the widespread belief that that the dark core of the apple tree represents the miraculous appearance of Roman Catholic priests. Significantly, to make the print, Saenredam looks through the glasses. Saenredam calls attention to the variety of the shapes and points out that the mistaken belief is founded on a reliance on resemblance. To return to the painted maps in Vermeer’s art, so precise in rendering that they have been used to postulate Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura, they are distinctive semblances of the original models, all the more descriptive in the Dutch picture landscape.
It is only in a country with a new sense of nationhood that we find map displaying like flag in almost any kind of interiors; in a society proliferated with pictures that we see map hung like works of art; and in a culture that painting under the glasses, the microscope, and the camera obscura becomes a source of style that we encounter elaborately rendered maps as in Vermeer’s oeuvre.
. James A. Welu, “Vermeer and Cartography.” PhD diss., Boston University, 1977, 8.
. I refer to Alpers’ notion of seventeen-century Dutch art in The Art of Describing. By “descriptive,” she refers to characteristics of artworks that are casually referred to as realistic. Descriptive artworks are characterized by actions being suspended and by a stilled or arrested quality. There exists a tension between description and narration—what she called the Albertian mode that characterized Italian art: attention to the surface of the world described is attained at the expense of narrative action.
. Scholars have postulated the use of the camera obscura in Officer and Laughing Girl using deformation analysis. The fitting position of Utrecht in Vermeer’s painted map and Berckenrode’s model map supports theory of the use of the camera obscura. See Livieratos, Evangelos, and Alexandra Koussoulakou. “Vermeer’s Maps: a New Digital Look in an Old Master’s Mirror.” e-Perimetron 1, no. 2 (2006): 138-154.
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. University of Chicago Press, reprint edition (April 15, 1984).
The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. Bao Ninh. Women’s Publishing House. 324 pp.
Thirty-five years after the war, the government continues to arouse national pride by touting victory in the so-called “American War,” leaving the war’s devastating effects out of the school curriculum. The Sorrow of War (1991; English translation 1994) by Bao Ninh, a former North soldier himself, offers the world an authentic insight: despite the destructive power of the war, the sorrow of war in each soldier’s heart saves his humanity during and after wartime:
It was thanks to our sorrow that we had been able to escape the war, escape the non-stop killing and fighting, the unhappy atmosphere of the fighters, the gun-users, in their fierce and violent haunts. It was thanks to our sorrow that we’d been able to walk again on the respective roads of our lives, our lives might not be very happy, and they might very well be sinful. But now we were living the most beautiful life we could have hope for, because it was a life of peace (323).
The novel was banned upon its first publication in Vietnam, probably because it openly criticizes propaganda, refusing to tag along with the heroism and patriotism of the contemporary literary circle. According to Bao Ninh, a mute woman in the novel, even represents “a feeling of oppression in Vietnam, and the oppression of the people of Vietnam.”1 The novel still has not gained as much reputation nationally as it does internationally.
Kien, the protagonist, is the sole survivor of his platoon from the Vietnam War. When the book opens one year after the war, Kien is on mission to collect the dead bodies of soldiers in the jungle of the Screaming Souls. Memories of the war return to haunt him and cripple his hopes of a normal life in present. Kien propels himself to write a war novel, for only by writing about the past can he find peace in his soul; to him, “the future had lain back in the far-away past” (59). Meanwhile, Phuong, Kien’s childhood sweetheart, now a prostitute, abandons him for another man. Though Phuong and Kien still love each other so much, the fortunes of war prevent them from coming together. Falling deeper in despair, Kien devotes himself to writing and heavy drinking. In drunkenness, he meets a mute woman at the same apartment building to seek inspiration. When the hope for Phuong’s return dashes, Kien burns his manuscript one night. The mute woman, who often secretly watches Kien working, prevents him from doing so. He disappears from the building that night, leaving his manuscript for the mute woman.
The novel has the power to lure readers into the jungles of souls and devils, to make them cry their heart out, and to laugh until their eyes brim with tears again. The real life experiences of the author, skillful manipulation of narrative, descriptive language, and use of symbol make The Sorrow of War one of the most poignant war novels of all time.
Bao Ninh’s experience as one of ten survivors from his brigade of five hundred men in the Vietnam War contributes to the novel’s success. The novel can be called a semi-autobiography, for Bao Ninh and Kien, in many ways, are alike: North soldiers, few survivors in their platoon, drunkards, and writers. But it may be easy to miss that Phuong is also Bao Ninh, as he confessed, “I am also Phuong.”2 (note that the author’s real name is Hoang Au Phuong). Phuong is a part of the author because both are artists whose talents are suppressed by the times. In the novel, Bao Ninh and Phuong are referred to as “out-of-time” artists.
Bao Ninh has managed to handle masterfully three narratives in his novel: a war story, a post wartime story, and a love story; it is about love during and after war, and how war ruins love. The novel starts in medias res when Kien is at MIA Remains-Gathering team. At this time, he neither suffers from the aftermath of war nor is he aware of how his life will: “Maybe from now on life will always be like this: dark, full of suffering, yet with moments of happiness. And maybe somewhere between dreaming or being awake, on the sheer cliff between the two is where he’ll pass the rest of his life” (55). Bao Ninh artfully leads us from one point of suspense to the next. We keep wondering how Kien’s life will turn out in present. What fortunes of war that haunts him until today. What prevents Kien and Phuong from reuniting? Will Kien finish his novel? Will Phuong come back? Readers follow Kien until the final pages in pursuit of the answers.
Flexibly changing points of view, Bao Ninh demands full attention from readers. The novel is divided into two parts based on viewpoints: the first seven chapters are in a third-person and the final one is in first. The first part is narrated from the limited point of view of Kien. At the end of the novel, a self-conscious unnamed narrator suddenly appears and claims to have Kien’s manuscript from the mute woman. Reading the manuscript, the narrator senses a strong connection with Kien since they both share “the immense sorrow of war” (323). This appearance is so quick that the New York Times criticized it as a failure3. Nevertheless, in the interview with IB World Magazine, Bao Ninh said the abruptness was deliberate: “The novel’s ending is intentionally abrupt to reflect the abrupt ending of the war. This war had lasted for a long time. And at times it seemed like the war would never end. But when it went away, it was so sudden. It made our ‘victory’ so surreal.”4 Switch to the first-person also extends Kien’s circumstance to that of other Vietnamese veterans, as the narrator concludes: “Both he and I, like the other ordinary soldiers of the American-Vietnamese war, had shared one fate. We’d shared all the vicissitudes, the defeats and victories, the happiness and suffering, the losses and gains” (323).
The novel also uses stream-of-consciousness – a technique that has made James Joyce and William Faulkner famous. Kien’s thoughts jump freely from past to present, which best conveys his mental crisis. The series of events isn’t chronicled linearly, but goes back and forth with his memories. Readers gradually sense soldiers’ sentiments, cruel and moving stories in war, and the failure of veterans to lead a normal life.
In this novel, Bao Ninh has painted a picture of words. Our visual, auditory, and olfactory senses work to the limit. We encounter a vastly gloomy scene here and there: “the immense green flow of water is still bathing the two riverbanks” (5); “quietly mixing with the sound of the stream is the desperate complaint of the deep forest far away” (6). The author notices the smallest movement of nature: “the wet wind sighs” (6), “hear the clouds blow along the sky” (83). Sometimes, our hair stands on end: “trees and plants moan in harmony their ghostly music” (9). The poetic imagery transmits sorrow to readers: “The sorrow of war inside a soldier’s heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love” (116).
Creating symbolic personages, Bao Ninh reflects his thoughts on the fate of artistic values of his time and partly predicts his novel’s future. Kien’s father and Phuong signify “out-of-time” artists. To them, art must be for art’s sake, not for any political purpose. They refuse to join the crowd that is blinded by propaganda and heartily embraces fighting for freedom. Contemporaries of the father label him “a suspicious discontented fellow” and “a rightist deviationist” (160). His paintings depict diabolical portraits, all in yellow: “man, woman, old, young people joined to one another in a file of withered puppets, wandering aimlessly amid unreal areas, gradually losing way, out of this world without looking back” (161). The paintings (clash head-on with propaganda) signal the grievous future of the nation. Before death, he burns all of the paintings he had drawn for years, indicating his discontent with society. Later on, Kien, disillusioned after the war, also burns his manuscript. Phuong, a gifted pianist and singer, after being raped, recklessly enters war to challenge Death and comes back as a prostitute in peacetime. These artists are depressed by time, and finally ruined by their own depression.
All these elements have successfully combined in a single novel, serving as a ground for the themes of the novel to stand out. Through Kien’s anecdotes, the author imprinted on us the cruelty of the war which is also the novel’s first theme. In war, human nature is in danger; soldiers have no choice but to kill people to save their own lives. Even an individual need like love becomes communal: the whole platoon shares three women. War begets violence. Rape is a common occurrence: seven South soldiers rape three North women, ten Americans rape a Vietnamese woman, and a Vietnamese man rapes Phuong. Even when the war is over, its impacts don’t spare society. Veterans are “crushed by the most terrible memories and ruined by them” (200), then bitterly realize their life has lain in the distant past. They get blind drunk to pass through day. One veteran, Vuong, a former brave and skillful driver, at first hopes to continue his job, but finally finds himself vomiting behind the wheel and desires to crash into passers-by. Veterans are all disillusioned in peacetime and surrender the war’s aftermath.
Though he recounts endless atrocities and cruelties, what Bao Ninh wants to tell readers is that human goodness can still emerge amidst the darkness. The soldiers enlisted in the army when they were young; the war means little to them. When realizing its meaninglessness, they react forcefully and fiercely. Kien spares the lives of seven South soldiers; Can, Kien’s comrade, deserts to reunite with his mother. Just like any other humans, they appreciate life. They die not for the heroism or idealism of any leader, but simply, “in order to save the life of one’s friend” (246). The soldiers’ goodness shines most brightly as we encounter a pleasant scene: Kien’s platoon resorts to the hallucinogenic rosa canina flower to forget “one’s ordinary soldier life,” “hunger and suffering,” “death,” and “tomorrow” (16). In the rosa canina smoke, they dream of lovers, food and drink, and home; the war dissolves under illusions of happiness. After years of unwilling killing and shooting, they hold a hatred of war at heart. Thus, they welcome the Victory Day with apathy and sarcasm. Instead of celebrating or singing, they sleep. Then they don’t soar in happiness but sink into bewilderment, “half crying and half laughing,” and “yelling and sobbing as if they were insane” (134). After loss of youth, love, and life, here comes a bitter peace, as a soldier told Kien: “Peace? Damn it, peace is only a kind of tree growing out of our fallen comrades-in-arms’ blood and muscles” (52).
I picked up The Sorrow of War expecting to see a truthful picture of the Vietnam War, unmarred by the propaganda of the government, but I gained more than that. Closing the book, I understand why my grandfather, a former driver on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, never talked about his war experience except once, when he scolded my little brother for his hobby: collecting toy guns. Time hasn’t healed my grandfather’s pain and grief of the bygone war. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh deserves a better nationwide reputation. This book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn about a painful period of Vietnamese history and then to lead a different life in modern times.
1, 2 “Special Feature – Bao Ninh Interview.” IB World Magazine. September 2009. Newspaper on-line. Available from http://www.ibo.org
3 Burns, Erik. “In Short: Fiction.” The New York Times. March 05, 1995. Newspaper on-line. Available from http://www.nytimes.com
In 1995, Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in which he described his theory about the shapes of stories. He drew on a blackboard graphs of story shapes that writers have used for centuries. “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads,” Vonnegut said (Swanson). He plotted stories on a vertical axis, running from Good fortune to Ill fortunes of the protagonist, and a horizontal axis that represents the course of the story from Beginning to End (see fig. 1a.). One of the most popular story types is what he called “Man in Hole”: somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it, and ends up better off than where they started (see fig. 1b.). A close variant is “Boy Loses Girl,” in which a person gets something amazing, loses it, and then gets it back again (see fig. 1c.). The Cinderella story (see fig. 1d.) is the most popular arc story in the history of civilization, “every time it’s retold, someone makes a million dollars,” Vonnegut said (Swanson). He also pointed out the similarity between the story arc of Cinderella and that of the New Testament in which a person receives sudden help from a deity, is suddenly ousted from good standing, but achieves happiness in the end. Some notable works of literature have ambiguous shapes: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis starts off bad and gets infinitely worse, and Hamlet keeps us from knowing if new developments are good or bad.
Fig. 1. Kurt Vonnegut’s arcs of story. 1a. Two axes of the graph. 1b. The “Man in Hole” arc. 1c. The “Boy Meets Girl” arc. 1d. The “Cinderella” arc. Images reproduced from Swanson and Popova.
Today, with technological advances, scientists have provided empirical evidence for Vonnetgut’s outlines of story shapes. Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory at the University of Vermont in Burlington have used sentiment analysis to map the emotional arcs of over 1,700 stories and then used data-mining techniques to identify the most common arcs (MIT Technology Review). They found six basic storytelling arcs that are the essence of all complex narratives: Rags to Riches (rise), Riches to Rags (fall), Man in a Hole (fall then rise), Icarus (rise then fall), Cinderella (rise then fall then rise), Oedipus (fall then rise then fall) (LaFrance).
Vonnegut’s theory of story shapes and these scientists’ work apply the same method—using graphical models to understand a set of data, a corpus of stories. The difference is that Vonnegut quantifies the data using his knowledge as a writer and a humanist, while the scientists use program and computer. There is not necessarily a superior method, but the two results, which overlapped, definitely complement each other.
Similarly, Frederick Turner has mapped familiar motifs of worldwide epics in Epic: Form, Content, and History, poetic meter as a universal human activity in “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time,” and beauty as a pancultural, neurobiological phenomenon in Beauty: the Value of Values. Taking relatively large sets of literary works produced by distinctive individuals, even from different cultures, Vonnegut and Turner found the common denominator among them and provided us with a compressed understanding of literature spanning the history of the human knowledge. One can quickly dismiss these works as overgeneralization. Vonnegut’s theory of story arcs was rejected as a master’s thesis in Anthropology at the University of Chicago “because it was so simple, and looked like too much fun,” in Vonnegut’s words (MIT Technology Review). Yet, these works open opportunities to work cross-discipline for humanists, artists, and scientists. Taking a large set of seemingly unrelated data and making sense of its structure are common practices of science today. This essay argues that a new aesthetics in the arts and humanities is emerging from this scientific practice. Before going into this new aesthetics, we need to take an excursion into the concept of “Organized Complexity” defined by the mathematician Warren Weaver to understand the origin of this aesthetics.
The Emergence of Organized Complexity
In 1948, the mathematician Warren Weaver, who was then the director of the Rockefeller Foundation, wrote a famous essay entitled “Science and complexity” in the American Scientist magazine. Weaver described science as a way of solving problems and divided the history of science into three main periods: problems of simplicity, problems of disorganized complexity, and problems of organized complexity. According to Weaver, the sciences of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were largely concerned with the understanding of the problems of one or two variables or problems of simplicity. One classic example is Newton’s laws of motion. While solving problems of simplicity brought us technological advances such as the telephone, the radio, the automobile, the airplane, and the phonograph, they were too simplistic to solve biological and medical problems which often involve complex systems: “The significant problems of living organisms are seldom those in which one can rigidly maintain constant all but two variables. Living things are more likely to present situations in which a half- dozen, or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously, and in subtly interconnected ways” (Weaver 2).
Around 1900, science evolved to deal with problems involved complex systems that are more often encountered in living things and in daily life. Instead of studying problems with two variables or at most three or four, some scientists, one pioneer being Josiah Willard Gibbs, started looking at problems with million or billion variables. The methods that made this new challenge possible were powerful techniques of probability theory and of statistical mechanics. Instead of describing the motion of a single ball as Newton’s laws did, scientists were capable of building statistical models for motions of millions of balls. Weaver defines a problem of disorganized complexity as:
a problem in which the number of variables is very large, and one in which each of the many variables has a behavior which is individually erratic, or perhaps totally unknown. However, in spite of this helter-skelter, or unknown, behavior of all the individual variables, the system as a whole possesses certain orderly and analyzable average properties. (Weaver 3)
Examples of the problems of disorganized complexity are the motion of atoms, the motion of stars, Mendel’s laws of heredity, and the laws of thermodynamics. Examples outside of science are telephone companies who calculate the average frequencies of calls, and life insurance companies that calculate their financial stability from the knowledge of the average frequency with which deaths will occur.
Using probabilistic and statistical methods to deal with disorganized complexity proves to be so powerful an advance over the earlier two-variable methods that scientists leave a great field untouched, and that is the region between simplicity and disorganized complexity. Weaver describes this middle region:
The really important characteristic of the problems of this middle region, which science has as yet little explored or conquered, lies in the fact that these problems, as contrasted with the disorganized situations with which statistics can cope, show the essential feature of organization. In fact, one can refer to this group of problems as those of organized complexity. (Weaver 4)
Weaver further stresses the difference between disorganized complexity and organized complexity: organized complexity involves “dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole” (Weaver 5). To put it simply, one can solve the problems of complete randomness or disorganized complexity by using probability and statistics, but in a complex system with many intertwined variables, where order is inherent within complexity, science needs to make a third great advance. He suggests two developments that can help solve problems of organized complexity: first, the electronic computing devices, and second, mixed teams of scientist from different fields:
mathematicians, physicists, and engineers are essential, the best of the groups also contained physiologists, biochemists, psychologists, and a variety of representatives of other fields of the biochemical and social sciences… [M]embers of such diverse groups could work together and could form a unit which was much greater than the mere sum of its parts. (Weaver 7-8)
Weaver did not specifically mention artists or humanists in his ideal team of problem solving, but recent interdisciplinary research, such as in information science, cultural analytics, computational art history, and digital humanities, has seen an increasing trend of cooperation between scientists, artists, and humanists despite rancorous objections from academics who do not tolerate “impurity” of their fields. John D. Barrow captures this sentiment in his essay “Art and Science—Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (2003): “Most artists are very nervous of scientific analysis. They feel it destroys something about the human aspect of creativity. The fear (possibly real) of unsubtle reductionism—music is nothing but the trace of an air pressure curve—is widespread” (Barrow 1). This fear is indeed not unfounded. Many projects bridging the arts/humanities and science can be over-simplistic and meaningless, offering little to no insights compared to the traditional approaches of studying arts and humanities. But this situation suggests a great potential of working cross-discipline between the arts, the humanities, and science. Scientists and computer scientists who have the key to technical skills and logical reasoning need us—humanists and artists who can direct them into producing meaningful research, helping them moving beyond the mere applications of their technical expertise.
To sum up Weaver’s three periods in the history of science, I used two figures produced by two data visualists Kim Albrech and Manuel Lima. Albrecht’s graph in Culturegraphy situates the problems of organized complexity exactly where chaorder is, between order and chaos: just before chaos is reached, the most complex systems arise and organized complexity emerges (see fig. 2.). In Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, Lima provides a graph explaining the three problems in science addressed by Weaver (see fig. 3.). Lima’s depiction of the problems of simplicity is two bodies with a directed vector; one object has direct influences on the other. The problems of disorganized complexity are depicted as random dots, in which one can possibly make sense of the structure by applying probabilistic and statistical models. The drawing of problems of organized complexity suggests the inherent structure among the dots, and in this case, there exists linkages among them, and thus the system is a network. To understand how modern science has tackled problems of organized complexity, one needs to take a glance into network science, a promising solution to problems of organized complexity.
Network Science and the Arts
The network of interactions between genes, proteins, and metabolites in live cells—the cellular network, the wiring diagram of connections between neurons—the neural network, the interconnection of one’s social ties—the social network, cyber interaction between people through the internet—communication networks, economic exchange—trade networks: these are all examples of network science (Barabasi 1.2). The official definition of network science is “the study of network representations of physical, biological, and social phenomena leading to predictive models of these phenomena” (the United States National Research Council). In visual representation, which is essential to the study of network science, distinct elements are represented as nodes or vertices, and the connections between the elements as links or edges (see fig. 4.).
This new science has received increasing attention since the last decades of the 20th century. Fig. 5. shows the frequency of use of the words “evolution,” “quantum,” and “network” in books since 1880. The plot was generated by Google’s ngram, which calculates the frequency of these words in the Google book corpus. Since 1980, usage of the word “network” surpasses that of “quantum,” referring to quantum mechanics, and that of “evolution,” referring to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The plot indicates the exploding societal awareness of networks in the last decades of the 20th century. The impact of network science can also be seen through citation patterns (see fig. 6). The plot compares citation numbers over time of high-impact papers in the field of complex systems. In the 60s and 70s, the field was dominated by Edward Lorenz, Kenneth G. Wilson, and Samuel F. Edwards and Philip W. Anderson. In the 1980s, the community has shifted its focus to Benoit Mandelbrot’s work on fractals and John Hopfield’s work on neural networks. The spikes in recent years are the two most cited papers in network science by Watts and Strogatz and by Barabási and Albert.
While network science has emerged as a separate discipline only in the 21st century, one can trace its root to the Biblical tree of knowledge of good and evil, or to the Porphyrian tree, the oldest known type of a classification tree diagram. A classic visualization of a network is Darwin’s illustration of the great Tree of Life in The Origin of Species (1859). It is the only graph included in the book, and so critical to Darwin’s theory of evolution that he included a note to the publisher to explain the importance of the diagram. Darwin’s description of this tree of life is so beautiful that it is usually considered an evidence that The Origins is more a piece of literature than a piece of scientific writing. The Tree of Life is a metaphor for the relationships between all creatures of the same class:
As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications. (Darwin 127)
The tree illustrates Darwin’s concepts of species divergence and extinction. Evolution is like a big tree: many branches emerge from a common trunk, some branches die off, representing extinction, other branches multiple and diversify over time.
Networks are not just a scientific metaphor, the concept has influenced painters, sculptors, architects, and designers in recent years. Manuel Lima coined the term “networkism” to refer to the new art movement driven by network science. The movement can be most clearly seen in new fields such as information science and data visualization, but several traditional artists also take up on the challenge. Sharon Molloy infused her skill as a painter with her curiosity about modern science to create mesmerizing paintings that are not unlike scientific graphs one usually comes across flipping through Nature or Science magazine (see fig. 8.-.9.). Exhibited in the museum, the artworks attract us not only because of the intricate lines, the interconnected structure, the rhythm of the brushstrokes, the appealing colors, or the familiar resemblance to natural patterns, they also call our attention to the impact modern science has on our lives.
There is a recurrent association between the depiction of complex networks and one particular art movement: abstract expressionism, in which Jackson Pollack is the key figure. Pollock’s drip paintings evoke large-scale views of networked systems, where the individual part is lost in the density of interconnectedness. Fig. 10. and fig. 11. show a striking resemblance between the dripping trajectories of Pollock’s paintings and the detailed view into a rat’s neuronal network. Fig. 12. and fig. 13. show similarity between Pollock’s Number 5 and an image of ten thousand neurons in a single neocortical column generated by IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer. Of course, correlation does not mean causation; Pollock might or might not have been inspired by complex networks, but the juxtaposition of the images suggests a natural affinity between science and the arts.
In architecture, the avant-garde architectural style parametricism reflects a heavy influence of technological advances and network science. Parametricism relies on programs, algorithms, and computers to manipulate equations for design purposes. It avoids rigid forms, simple repetition, and isolation of entities. According to Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, the most well-known advocate of the style, parametricism mimics the soft organic form of nature and requires all parts of a building correlated to reflect the network society that we are living in. Parametricism displays a very modern beauty that can be intimidating and alien compared to our familiar living and working space, but it also shows the courage of architects who readily embrace science to make a strong artist statement, and to extend the boundaries of architectural designs.
There have been some points of contact between science and the arts in the past, but opportunity to cross-pollinate between the arts and science has never been ampler given recent technological advances, especially the computer’s exponentially increasing computational capacity. From organized complexity and network science emerged a new aesthetics: a beauty that is situated between order and chaos, between simplicity and disorganized complexity, between the arts and sciences, and between the traditional and the avant-garde. Manuel Lima captured the beauty of “Networkism” in his book: “Networks show that there is order in disorder, that there is unity in diversity, and above all, that complexity is astonishingly beautiful” (Lima 243).
Truth be told, I find it is easier to understand neuron science than music theory. That’s to say, you are going to read a review of classical music by a very amateur listener. My music career ended tragically short at eight years old when my piano teacher, who, I kid you not, was a pedophile, ended up in jail for drinking and beating his wife. Though handicapped with knowledge in music, I couldn’t resign to the fact that there is one kind of arts I couldn’t understand at all. Besides, a friend of mine, a classical composer himself, enthusiastically encourages me to pursue the studying of classical music. So here I am, rambling to you about music, specifically about Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni.
Of all the genres in which Mozart worked, and he wrote in virtually all kind of genre of his day, his operas are usually celebrated as his greatest achievements. I think what makes his operas outstanding among his contemporaries’ is his psychologically complex characters, his ability to synthesize and transcend the boundaries of the comic and the serious, and the layers of meanings in his works (The only other person who was able to accomplish these in arts is of course William Shakespeare; no wonder his fame surpassed that of his more learned contemporaries such as Marlowe and Kyd). Regarding these features in Mozart’s operas, one may find Don Giovanni a good example of Mozart’s aesthetics.
Watching Don Giovanni is a well-worth three-hour of both learning and entertainment. If you have heard of the notorious libertine Don Juan or perhaps harbor the thought of becoming a lady-killer like him, the opera will give you insights. But in case you haven’t heard of Don Juan/Don Giovanni, basically he is a Casanova, and the opera is about his reckless conquest of women, including killing one old man on his way, and how the women revenge him. The legend of Don Juan and Casanova emerged in a time when Europe started casting doubts on the orderly, predetermined universe that governed the Western beliefs for centuries. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, scientific discoveries—especially by Newton, the Industrial Revolutions, the rise of political liberalism, etc. all contributed to the shaking belief. A century latter in Germany, Frederick Nietzsche would announce the death of God, which is probably Nietzsche’s death as well. But any way, Don Giovanni is the product of such a tumultuous period when people wonder what happens if one just throws away all conventions and moralities and follow their passion now that the world is not predestined, and no one will be punished in the afterlife. In other words, let’s all abandon the rational dull Apollonian lifestyle (the product of the Age of Enlightenment) and seek pleasure like the wild self-indulgent god of wine, Dionysus.
Despite the lengthy context above, I guarantee you the opera is funny and captivating on its own right. Mozart constantly juxtaposes the comic and the serious; sometimes lightness and gravity coexist within one scene. At the beginning of the opera, Don Giovanni slays the father of one of his women—Donna Anna, a woman who has just fought off his sexual advances. Nevertheless, immediately following the grave music of this scene is the playful vocal of Don Giovanni and Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, when Don Giovanni approaches a lady lamenting the abandonment of her lover. The lady, who sings in demanding vocal line, full of large leaps and covering a wide range, turns out to be one of Don Giovanni’s women, Donna Elvira. The next scene is one of the most comic scenes when Leporello explains to Donna Elvira she is just one among the hundreds of Don Giovanni’s women, so she shouldn’t be upset and demand Don Giovanni’s loyalty. Leporello shows her the numbers of Don Giovanni’s amorous conquests by nationalities: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1003 in Spain. He will praise a fair girl for her kindness, a dark one constancy, and a white-haired one sweetness; he will call a tall one stately and the tiny one dainty. In winter he prefers plump girls, in summer slim. He courts the elderly for the sake of adding them to the list, but his most favorites are the virgins.
Bawdy, right? It is exactly this bawdiness that Beethoven criticized Mozart, saying Mozart had wasted his talent on the naughty sex operas. Also in this scene, Leporello’s playful voice emerges out of a heroic background music perhaps to bring out the irony of the situation: the sorrow of Donna Elvira contrasts with the indifference and cheerfulness of Leporello.
If you have heard of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, then you may find the opera extra-interesting because the master-servant couple Don Giovanni and Leporello resembles Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Leporello is clumsy, gluttonous, practical, and coward just like Sancho Panza, while Don Giovanni, in certain regards, resembles Don Quixote because both are adventurers and idealists. And it is this clashing of the opposite personalities of Don Giovanni and Leporello that adds humor to the opera. Music in Don Giovanni bubbles with energy because of sudden changes from slow to fast, from soft to loud, from major to minor within a single movement with preference for major mode. Under the influence of the Classical style, the opera’s harmony is simpler, and the melody more singable and less melismatic with more cadence breaking up the melody into segments and short phrases. And unlike the Baroque music which emphasizes the display of affectation, emotion in Don Giovanni is kept in balance; the opera unites emotion and elegance.
Youtube has several good performance of Don Giovanni in full, for example:
If you are a student of UT Dallas, the opera is also available at UTD library: DVD 213 and DVD233. So enjoy!
E. Cummings’ talents as a poet and as a painter comes together in this visual poem, in which he artfully integrates typography and words to create a mixed-media artwork of text and image on paper. The subject matter of the poem, which describes an outdoor scene throughout the day and the deeper content, which is the conflict between the beautiful sky and the pollution below are inseparable from the poet’s arrangement of syllables, words, and syntax.
On first reading, the poet seems to describe a simple outdoor scene by various similes. The opening comparison of the sky with candy makes readers perceive the sky not only with sight, but also with taste and touch: “the sky was candy.” Cummings stresses the similarity of the sky to food by continuing to use food images: “edible,” “lemons,” and “chocolates.” The sky is as touchable, inviting, and pleasant as candies and chocolates. It is also bright and lively: “luminous” and “spry.” Cummings uses different shades and colors to portray the scene: “luminous,” “pinks,” yellow of “lemons,” “greens,” brown of “chocolates,” and “violets.” Without the punctuation and visual arrangement of the text, the poem’s meaning seems to be straightforward: “the sky was candy luminous edible spry pink shy lemons greens cool chocolates under, a locomotive sprouting violets.”
Nevertheless, examining each word and its arrangement on paper reveals more about Cummings’ intention to connect content and form. The words aided by the typography create hidden meanings for the poem. In the first stanza, moving from “pinks shy,” to “lemons,” to “green cool,” and to “chocolates,” the poet describes the sky through different times of the day. In the early morning, the sun rises gradually as if it were shy of the new day. The sky is now glimmering with pink as the sun is half-revealed behind the clouds. In the afternoon, the sky is at its highest bright and perhaps as vivid as the color of “lemons,” and the temperature is as pungent as lemons’ taste. Lemons may also provoke juiciness, which can be a suggestion of sweat and thirst relief. In the late afternoon, the brightness of the sky is reduced to a more muted color, “green,” and the temperature becomes “cool.” In the evening, the sky turns darker, like the dark brown of “chocolates.” This process of assigning colors to the sky at different times of the day is like a painting process by a painter who experiments with colors: he paints the scene perceptively instead of mimetically.
Cummings’ careful visual placement of the words perhaps mirrors the swift transition of time within a day. If readers draw lines bordering the end of each line, these diagonal lines will converge at four points (see the figure below). These four points may represent the four different periods as described above: the early morning, the afternoon, the late afternoon, and the evening. In painting, diagonal lines always evoke tension and dramatic feeling, while horizontal and vertical lines generate a static and stable feeling. As a painter, Cummings is well-aware of these rules. The diagonal lines derived from the word arrangement could indicate a rapid passing of time and a drastic change of scenery within one day.
The last stanza completes the picture. Cummings places the words in this stanza differently than he does in the previous one. He dissects words more thoroughly: syllables of each word spread more line. His words, instead of jumping a sharp distance between lines, tail along each other; thus, the second stanza seems to be bordered by curvy lines instead of linear ones. The result is an image that suggests smoke emitting up into the sky (see the above figure). Together, the forms of the two stanzas may be seen as a threat of pollution. The colorful and tasty sky is threatened by smoke and dirt from the train; an idyllic nature is endangered by pollution from machines and industrialization. The period at the end of the first stanza, the only period in the poem, resolutely separates the two scenes, emphasizing a dialectic between the tranquil sky above and the ominous pollution below. By articulating the content of the poem with typography, Cummings is able to use only a few words to deliver his ideas. With its sparseness, “The sky was” retains an abstract quality. The artists’ perfect comingling of text and image and the fusion of form and content allow the multiplicity of interpretive possibilities.
“Annabel Lee” is the last complete poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Like many of his poems such as “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” and “To One in Paradise,” “Annabel Lee” explores the theme of the death of a beautiful young woman, which Poe claims is “unquestionably the most poetic topic in the world.” In the poem, the speaker fell in love with Annabel Lee when they were children. He asserts that their love was so strong and intense that even the angels envied them and caused Annabel Lee’s death. He loves her intensely even after her death, feeling her soul and his mingle. Every night, he dreams of her and her bright eyes, as he lies down by her sepulcher by the sea. The poem was written in 1849 and was not published until shortly after Poe’s death that same year.
One century later, Vladimir Nabokov created one of the most controversial masterpieces of the twentieth century, Lolita (1955), which accounts the story a man loving a child-girl. The protagonist and unreliable narrator, a thirty-seven-year-old French literature professor called Humbert Humbert (or H.H.) is obsessed with the twelve-year-old Dolores Haze whom he privately nicknames Lolita. He is sexually involved with her after becoming her stepfather. Like “Annabel Lee,” Lolita touches on the subject of passion and obsession for a young child and the suffering of the male lover. Indeed, Nabokov intentionally borrowed and reused details, images, and phrases in “Annabel Lee.” His borrowing and alternation of Poe’s poem shows his talent of varying literary materials and merging them into his own creation. Lolita and “Annabel Lee” also offer insights into artists’ process of borrowing and creation in art.
Chapter One of Lolita already evokes several details and images from Poe’s poem. Humbert Humbert’s contemplation about Lolita’s name is an evocation of Poe’s Annabel Lee: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta” (Nabokov 9). The middle syllable of “Lo-lee-ta” alludes to the name Annabel Lee. In the next paragraph, Humbert describes his love for Lolita: “had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea” (Nabokov 9). Though Nabokov alters Poe’s “kingdom by the sea” to “princedom by the sea” (Nabokov 9), this description echoes the first two lines of the second stanza of Poe’s poem: “I was a child and she was a child,/ In this kingdom by the sea” (lines 7-8). The second-to last sentence of this chapter is a reverberation of the phrases “winged-seraphs” and the verb “envy” from the poem: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied” (Nabokov 9). This sentence is a pastiche of two passages of the poem: “the winged seraphs of Heaven” (line 11) and “The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,/ went envying her and me” (lines 21–2). Both H.H. and the speaker in “Annabel Lee” accuse the seraphs of envying their love.
The clearest parallel to Poe’s “Annabel Lee” in Lolita is Humbert Humbert’s account of his childhood and his first love in Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and Chapter Four. Before becoming obsessed with Lolita in his adulthood, Humber, as a child, grew up in his father’s luxurious hotel on the Riviera and fell in love with a girl who lived nearby named Annabel Leigh; they were both thirteen at this point. They were about to consummate their love at seaside but were interrupted by two swimmers whom H.H. called “ribald sea monsters” (Nabokov 53). Annabel Leigh died four months later of typhus. Humbert claims that her death thwarted him of romantic relationship until he reincarnates her in Lolita twenty four year later:
I also know that the shock of Annabel’s death consolidated the frustration of that nightmare summer, made of it a permanent obstacle to any further romance throughout the cold years of my youth. The spiritual and the physical has been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after her death I felt her thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met, we had had the same dreams. We compared notes. We found strange affinities. (Nabokov 14)
Like Humbert who “felt her thoughts floating through mine” (Nabokov 14) and who “found strange affinities” (Nabokov 14) with his first love, the narrator in “Annabel Lee” senses an inseparable spiritual connection with his lover after her death:
Our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; (line 27-33)
“The matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today” (Nabokov 14) parallel “those who were older than we” (line 28) and “many far wiser than we” (line 29) in Poe’s poem. They are the people who judge the love of H.H. and the narrator in the poem. Humbert’s frustration, obsession with his first love after her death, and his sense of superiority to his peers mirror the narrator’s feelings in Poe’s poem.
In addition to the above chapters, “Annabel Lee” echoes throughout the novel as well. Humbert calls Annabel Leigh and Lolita “my darling” or “my bride” many times, resonating with Poe’s phrase: “my darling—my darling—my life and my bride” (line 39). He calls his trip to the seaside with Lolita “the search for a Kingdom by the Sea” (Nabokov 167). Nabokov originally even titled the novel The Kingdom by the Sea. Nabokov’s choice of subject matter, a man in love with a young child who died premature, is both a tribute and a parody to Poe’s “most poetic topic in the world.” Humbert’s mother died when he was three; his aunt who took after him died after his sixteen birthday; his first love Annabel Leigh died when he was thirteen; and Lolita died giving birth to a stillborn girl at the age of seventeen. Poe himself suffered the loss of his beloved women: his mother, his foster mother, and his wife.
Poe conjures up a fantastical kingdom by the sea where two people are in love and are envied by angels on Heaven. The poem is perhaps Poe’s attempt to rationalize the loss of his woman. Nabokov borrows the subject matter of the poem and creates an intricate novel that challenges any moral interpretation. He forces readers to sympathize with Humbert, though his act is repugnant. He tricks readers, lures them by his excellent command of the English language, appealing them to their sense of beauty. Despite any moral interpretation of the novel, Lolita after all is captivating from H.H.’s psychology to Nabokov’s language. Ultimately, the novel successfully portrays an aesthetic values: the escaping and fragile nature of beauty. Beauty is not reduced to category of good and evil. Beauty perhaps lies on the border of good and evil, of prettiness and sublimity, of the meso and the meta. Nabokov lived a golden aristocratic childhood in Russia, but the emergence of Communism robbed him of his privilege and forced him into a life of exile. Besides being a writer, Nabokov also made serious contributions to the study of butterflies, creatures he considered the epitome of beauty. As a chess composer, Nabokov also invented Lolita as a chess problem, a puzzle, a morally difficult situation. Through Lolita, readers see the attempt of Nabokov the aesthete, Nabokov the exile, Nabokov the lepidopterist, and Nabokov the chess composer, to capture the fragility of beauty.