Democritus the Third

'Banned by the land of their birth / Rhine refused them’

To the happy memory of 800 African refugees, exiles by the Schengen laws, drowned between midnight and morning of April 19th, 2015.



THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND

                                    I
        Thou mastering me
     God! giver of breath and bread;
  World’s strand, sway of the sea;
     Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
   Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

        I did say yes
     O at lightning and lashed rod;
  Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
     Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
   Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

        The frown of his face
     Before me, the hurtle of hell
  Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
     I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
   Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

        I am soft sift
     In an hourglass—at the wall
  Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
     And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
   Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

        I kiss my hand
     To the stars, lovely-asunder
  Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
     Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
   His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

        Not out of his bliss
     Springs the stress felt
  Nor first from heaven (and few know this)
     Swings the stroke dealt—
Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt—
   But it rides time like riding a river
(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).

        It dates from day
     Of his going in Galilee;
  Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
     Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat;
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,
   Though felt before, though in high flood yet—
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,

        Is out with it! Oh,
     We lash with the best or worst
  Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
     Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!—Hither then, last or first,
   To hero of Calvary, Christ,’s feet—
Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go.

        Be adored among men,
     God, three-numberéd form;
  Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
     Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
   Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

        With an anvil-ding
     And with fire in him forge thy will
  Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring
     Through him, melt him but master him still:
Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,
Or as Austin, a lingering-out swéet skíll,
   Make mercy in all of us, out of us all
Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.

                                    II

     "Some find me a sword; some
     The flange and the rail; flame,
  Fang, or flood" goes Death on drum,
     And storms bugle his fame.
But wé dréam we are rooted in earth—Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
     Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.

     On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
     American-outward-bound,
  Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
     Two hundred souls in the round—
O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
     Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

     Into the snows she sweeps,
     Hurling the haven behind,
  The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,
     For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
     Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

     She drove in the dark to leeward,
     She struck—not a reef or a rock
  But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
     Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
     And canvass and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

     Hope had grown grey hairs,
     Hope had mourning on,
  Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
     Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
     And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

     One stirred from the rigging to save
     The wild woman-kind below,
  With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
     He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
     Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

     They fought with God’s cold—
     And they could not and fell to the deck
  (Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
     With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
     Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

     Ah, touched in your bower of bone
     Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
  Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
     Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.
O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,
Why, tears! is it? tears; such a melting, a madrigal start!
     Never-eldering revel and river of youth,
What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?

     Sister, a sister calling
     A master, her master and mine!—
  And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
     The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
     Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

     She was first of a five and came
     Of a coifèd sisterhood.
  (O Deutschland, double a desperate name!
     O world wide of its good!
But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
     From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)

     Loathed for a love men knew in them,
     Banned by the land of their birth,
  Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
     Surf, snow, river and earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
     Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.

     Five! the finding and sake
     And cipher of suffering Christ.
  Mark, the mark is of man’s make
     And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—
     Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

     Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
     Drawn to the Life that died;
  With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
     Lovescape crucified
And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters
And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,
     Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

     Away in the loveable west,
     On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
  I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
     And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
     Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.

     The majesty! what did she mean?
     Breathe, arch and original Breath.
  Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?
     Breathe, body of lovely Death.
They were else-minded then, altogether, the men
Woke thee with a we are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.
     Or ís it that she cried for the crown then,
The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?

     For how to the heart’s cheering
     The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
  Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
     Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
     What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

     No, but it was not these.
     The jading and jar of the cart,
  Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease
     Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,
Not danger, electrical horror; then further it finds
The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:
     Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s
Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

     But how shall I … make me room there:
     Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—
  Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
     Thing that she … there then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:
He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;
     Do, deal, lord it with living and dead;
Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.

     Ah! there was a heart right
     There was single eye!
  Read the unshapeable shock night
     And knew the who and the why;
Wording it how but by him that present and past,
Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—
     The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast
Tarpeian-fast, but a blown beacon of light.

     Jesu, heart’s light,
     Jesu, maid’s son,
  What was the feast followed the night
     Thou hadst glory of this nun?—
Feast of the one woman without stain.
For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;
     But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,
Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.

     Well, she has thee for the pain, for the
     Patience; but pity of the rest of them!
  Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the
     Comfortless unconfessed of them—
No not uncomforted: lovely-felicitous Providence
Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the
     Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and
Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?

     I admire thee, master of the tides,
     Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall;
  The recurb and the recovery of the gulf’s sides,
     The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;
Staunching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;
Ground of being, and granite of it: past all
     Grasp God, throned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;

     With a mercy that outrides
     The all of water, an ark
  For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides
     Lower than death and the dark;
A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,
The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark
     Our passion-plungèd giant risen,
The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.

     Now burn, new born to the world,
     Doubled-naturèd name,
  The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
  Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame,
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;
     Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.

     Dame, at our door
     Drowned, and among our shoals,
  Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
  Our Kíng back, Oh, upon énglish sóuls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,
     Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

R.I.P. Terry Pratchett

On Virtue

The Naming of the Stars

Memorandum of the Contact and Cultural Exchange to the settlement Iparaha: General Sciences divsion
From: Dr. Renée ISHIKAWA, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)
To: Dr. Mara SHANG, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)

August 11, 2206

Dr. Shang,

I know the university senate has been eager for a more substantial update, especially after the worrying communique the U.N. mission received in July; you can reassure them that such an update is on its way, and that we’re all fine here. Yes, there was a small diplomatic incident, in that the Chereni did eat a couple of members of the diplomatic corps, but it was a genuine misunderstanding, and for what it’s worth, they do feel terrible about it. We’ve been hard at work building bridges with our hosts here at Iparaha, and the governing committee of the Exchange is putting finishing touches now on a pretty comprehensive document on the Chereni in re: the possibility of mutually beneficial scientific and economic exchange between our two species. Though the contents of the report are supposed to remain classified until the General Assembly has time to go over it, I can tell you that things are looking extremely promising. Aside from the aforementioned mixup, the Chereni are quite the peaceful people, and are as eager to learn from us, as we are from them.

As comprehensive as the report is going to be, though, we’ve learned so much in so short a time we couldn’t possibly fit everything in it. The general outlines of Chereni biology, history, culture, law, religion, etc., are there, and I’ll leave it to the experts and exchange officers briefed in those fields to cover them. (In short: the Chereni are like us in a lot of ways, and unlike us in a lot of ways; once you get past the different evolutionary pressures that produced them, and some elementary differences in their perceptual systems, though, it’s more like than unlike—under the slime and the scales, they’re basically human.) But there are some things that aren’t going to make it into the report, for reasons of time and space; of particular interest to me was the Chereni approach to astronomy. Well, not astronomy exactly, but astronomical nomenclature. In short: on the Cheren homeworld, the poets named the stars.

A little background: the arc of Chereni history has been pretty different from Earth’s—not surprising, given the environmental and biological differences, to say nothing of psychological—but it’s just as long and complicated, and I can’t hope to give you anything like a reasonable summary, so you will have to forgive me in advance for butchering it with crude analogies to our own. But there was a period, a few centuries ago, very roughly analagous to the scientific revolution on Earth, when it looked like the general trend of Chereni science and culture (and the interaction between the two) might’ve followed something like the trajectory they did on Earth: science as the province of socioeconomic elites, with time and money to spare, efforts being concentrated by something like universities or national academies, plus elite sponsorship, producing the ancestor of the modern research institution, and so on and so forth. But there was a political upheaval and, to cut a long and boring story short, the first Cheren Enlightenment fizzled. It didn’t die out, but it didn’t have anything like the impact the Enlightenment on Earth did, and the first, tentantive steps of scientific exploration and systematization of thought didn’t lead to anything much. Experiment and empiricism became the province mostly of a few minor religious orders, who laid a lot of the groundwork for the second Enlightenment. But they weren’t much interested in astronomy.

You see, the atmosphere of the Cheren homeworld is thicker than Earth’s. It lets some light through—they say about as much as a very cloudy day here at Iparaha—but their world is further from their sun than Earth is, and has to trap quite a lot of heat so that the surface remains inhabitable. There are very high mountains and plateaus where the clouds thin enough that you can see the stars, but the Chereni can’t survive any better than humans at those altitudes, so there wasn’t much in the way of ancient astronomy. The advent of radio helped a little—natural radio sources in the sky at least got them looking up—but the heavens never captured the Chereni imagination the way they did the human. Their gods were always walking among them, invisible; the skies were like the seas or the caves below the earth, supposed to be filled with demons and monsters, and the unhappy dead.

So even within the scientific fringe, slowly building the foundations of methodical empiricism during this great medium aevum, astronomy was a further fringe; it wasn’t the monks who tried to study the stars, venturing to the high mountaintops and the margins of the great uplands to make fleeting observations of the few visible stars, but mystics and wild-eyed hermits. Even the Chereni can’t account for why they did. I have my own suspicions—and they have to do with the feeling that infects the soul the first time you stand in a place like the Atacama Desert and look up at the night sky—but they remain suspicions, and pretty anthropocentric ones at that. These early astronomers weren’t versed in the religious language which was later adapted to scientific vocabulary, in the way the educated elite of Europe adapted Greek and Latin to science, and their jargon had little in common with the rest of early Chereni science, which only deepened the split. But they weren’t astrologers. They had no truck with gods and myths when they measured the stars—for, after all, among the Chereni, the gods walk the land, not the skies.

When the real Enlightenment came to the Chereni, when the scientific method finally exploded out of the cloisters and the scriptoria, the revolution was as swift and thorough as it was on Earth. Maybe even more so. But it didn’t sweep up astronomy, not at first. Astronomers were wild and dangerous back then—weirdos, not scientists. By the time the mainstream Chereni scientific establishment was ready to treat them seriously, a whole parallel subculture had emerged when it came to the study of the stars. True, they were every bit as systematic and rigorous as the scientists; but the astronomers had no truck with scientific jargon, distrusted dry technical language which was devoid of awe or appreciation of the phenomena it studied, and disagreed entirely with the implicit purpose of the Chereni scientific project. Their goal was not to understand the universe, they claimed, not as its own end. Their goal was nothing less than the transformation of the Cheren soul, in the crucible of beauty.

I’m quoting from an old astronomical treatise there, and not really doing the translation justice—please forgive me. Chereni grammar can be every bit as bloody-minded as human.  Nowadays, of course, astronomy, like any other science/philosophy/scholarship, is regarded among the Chereni as one of many valid and interesting domains of knowledge, and probably without any inherent special purpose. It retains a distinct vocabulary, though, and in Chereni schools is usually more associated with what we would mostly call humanities and social sciences: literary and digital criticism, linguistics, conlanging, and sociology. But that’s a historical artifact.

But when I first sat down with my Chereni colleagues to compare our star charts, what really struck me were the names. That’s probably their biggest inheritance from their ancestors. You see, on Earth, we have to rely on photographs to convey the wonder of science to the public. And sometimes, even the pictures don’t do it justice; you see something a hundred times, you forget how special it is, even if it’s a photograph taken from the surface of a barren planet five light years away, by an AI-controlled probe. Jupiter is Jupiter; you forget it’s also hundreds of times the size of Earth, an immense swirling sphere of storms, a world of endless clouds and wind. The Chereni don’t have that problem because, as I said, the poets named the stars.

Their names are systematic; they are precise. They classify objects as rigorously as we do, and though they slice their classifications a bit differently, they use mostly the same basic parameters. But every name for an alien world, or a distant sun in a Cheren language contains a little fragment of awe. They have nothing so banal as the Crab Nebula here at Iparaha, because the first time a Chereni saw it, she saw it through a powerful telescope, and to her it was as if she had seen a forest made of fire. So they named it Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, and that’s how it’s referred to in every encyclopedia, database, and scientific paper since. When they saw the Eagle Nebula, to them, too, it looked something like a great bird of prey sheltering newborn stars. They named it Cuizigan, after the devouring mother of myth, and they added the epithet, Mother of Stars. The planets of their home system are given names a little more mundane, but still evocative of their natures: Taius, the Ice-Clad, Vethrin of the Shroud, Ardal the Broken, and Gorhas, the Desert. Some names are long, nearly unwieldy; some are short and pithy. But every time they speak of these things, they use the name in full. I asked one of my interlocutors why, and she did a Chereni shrug. “Tradition,” she said. “But also this: it reminds us that these are the faces of nature at its wildest and strongest, and the appropriate feeling toward such beauty is always awe.”

Naturally, when Chereni physics and astronomy advanced to the point where true cosmology became a field of study, this habit of poetic astronomical nomenclature was extended to cosmological matters as well. Because actual telescopic astronomy was so hobbled by Cheren’s atmosphere, the two actually developed hand-in-hand for much of the last three centuries. Just as we use metaphorical handles to deal with astrophysical phenomena beyond our comprehension, so do they; but I must give the Chereni credit. Theirs are far more beautiful. There is nothing so mean or naked as “the Big Bang” or the “steady-state model” in Chereni cosmology. They call the former Talasendrion, the ancient word their gnostics use for the birth of God. Sometimes, also, I have seen it named the Elemental Fire, but I believe this more usually corresponds to what we call Planck epoch. The latter is Choraselos, the Universe of Order; your opinion may vary on whether it is an appropriate name, but to the Chereni it carries all of the weight of the hope of a knowable and comfortable universe which inspired it there, as here. Supernovae, I am told, are given a dozen different names depending on the type, but they are grouped together within the “ephemeral and trembling stars,” which include also novae and some variable stars. Among stellar remnants, they speak of white dwarfs, “the white and dying flame,” neutron stars as “the mighty anchor-stones of the sky,” and for black holes they have a word which alludes to the ancient Cheren fear of oblivion, which my companion, shuddering, declined to speak aloud.

You may think that science among humans can be poetic, and until I came to Iparaha, I thought so, too. Certainly, we have our occasional turns of phrase; I am reminded of the old Hubble image, which was given an almost Chereni title, “The Pillars of Creation.” We have occasionally named the surfaces of our worlds with something approaching their majesty: the Labyrinth of Night, on Mars; or the Ocean of Storms. But these names are either informal (as for the Pillars), or rendered distant and sterile by languages whose use connotes all things Scientific and Rational, all things seperated from Emotion and Art. The odd popularizer of science has tried to bridge the gap: Sagan, for instance, when he wrote that bit about “what men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but not if he were an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia?” But Sagan wasn’t really a poet, or not a very good one, and his attempt to reclaim something of poetic majesty for astronomy, though admirable, was not quite up to snuff.

But, ah! The Chereni astronomers could put Shakespeare to shame. I can’t read the language they use here at Iparaha very well—it’s logographic, like Chinese, though they do have terminals that display phonetic symbols for children, and that’s mostly what we’ve been relying on. So I’ve struggled through a few astronomical papers that my hosts have provided. Jesus, Mara, you should read these papers. Hell, even just their encyclopedias. Just as ours tend to adopt the scientific tone when writing about scientific matters, so their adopt the poetic tone when writing about astronomy, or astrophysics. We may speak of the Crab Nebula as a remnant of a supernovae, a pulsar’s nebula in the direction of Taurus. The Chereni speak of Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, whose boughs of a thousand colors reach toward their father, the corpse of a shattered star that sings his death-song in the radio frequency, whose music causes his children to weep and burn. I can’t do it justice, really. There’s a specific vocabulary of usage here: the word they use for “weep” recalls the blue of synchronotron radiation. Their words for “radio” and “frequency” have nothing of the connotation we give them, of technology and wavy imagined lines. In all my years working in astronomy, or teaching it, I have seen nothing like the Chereni papers, and felt nothing like the awe their scientist-poets induce. Mara, I’ve never wept while reading about exoplanets before—but that’s what the Chereni have reduced me to.


I’m working on preparing a short paper on the Chereni approach to astronomy; I expect I could probably get it published in one of the Martian cultural journals. I’d like to try to translate a couple of articles, too, but honestly, I’m just not sure English as we speak it now is up to the task. Our technical vocabulary is—well, too technical. I yearn for a form of the language that could be stripped of the legacy of the industrial revolution, recast in a form where progress and logical positivism weren’t baked into every Greco-Latin syllable at the expense of sorrow, and beauty, and art. Then, perhaps, I could begin to tell you of what the Chereni know of the serene beauty of Andromeda, or the achingly sad yearning they see in the redshifted galaxies at the cosmic horizon; or the bewitching mystery of the Great Attractor, or the loneliness and the silence of the Boötes Void. But alas! We never let our poets explain the universe to us. We will have to let the Chereni do it for them.

Dr. Renée Ishikawa
HLRN: TA455671(ce)
University of New Berlin
Department of Astronomy

From "The Encyclopedia of Things to Come"

Digital Criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of computer programs as aesthetic objects; specifically, digital critics study the code of a program (referred to as the “text”) for its aesthetic, political, social, and artistic value. Digital criticism can be contrasted against computer science, which is concerned with a scientific approach to computing, or digital ludology, which is concerned with the aesthetics and design of programs in operation. Digital criticism applies the theories of literary and artistic criticism to the texts it studies, especially those of structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, mereological criticism, and neurocognitive criticism.

Early digital critics, beginning with R.F. Hawley, pointed to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (A Course in General Linguistics), Egon Djikstra (“‘Goto’ Statements Considered Harmful,” “On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computing Science”), and the open source movement (the Debian Constitution, Stallman’s “The GNU Project and the free software movement”) to establish a context for their work, and attempted to ground the field firmly within both the traditions of literary criticism and digital culture. Xǔ Song argues that digital criticism reached maturity with the 2164 publication of Anna Yatsko’s Digital Poetics, and its follow up the next year, Turing’s Ghost. Nonetheless, major universities did not begin offering courses or degrees in the subject until the 2180s. The first university to establish a department devoted to digital studies was the New People’s University of Beijing, and over the next few decades similar departments were founded at universities and liberal arts colleges all over the world.

Digital criticism can be divided into a number of sub-fields or specializations. Many such divisions are based on a particular programming language or class of programming languages, while others are based on the type of program that is studied. One of the largest specializations by far, and one of the major foundations of the field as a whole, is the study of operating systems. Although digital criticism does not focus on the operation of programs, in order to understand texts, critics must be proficient in numerous programming languages, and, to a more general degree, general theory of computer science.

See also: [Literary Criticism] [Technical Archeology] [“Historical Linguistics for the Computer Programmer” (X.C. Vale, 2184)] [The New Berlin Handbook of Digital Criticism (NBUP, 2199)]

Because the presence in this country of a substantial Muslim population that feels, quite as intensely as its co-religionists in the Middle East, the humiliation of the umma, is rendered wholly problematic by a general refusal on all sides of the debate to acknowledge the truth: which is that mass immigration is predicated on the unswerving and interlocking logics of neoliberalism, globalisation and greed. Just as our governments outsource violence, and our businesses outsource production, so our ageing and deskilled population desperately requires a steady influx of the hungry and the competent to keep the whole show on the road.

“On Raglan Road,” performed by Cristin Milioti

There is no such thing as America

by Peter Bichsel

translated from the German by M. Schuller

Let me tell you the story of a man I once met, a man who told me a story. As I said to him many times, I don’t believe a word of his tale. ‘You’re a liar,’ is what I told him, ‘you tell fibs, and you’re a fantasist. A fraud.’

My words made no impression. He continued to tell me his story, in a quieter voice, until I started to shout at him: ‘You hack! You swindler! You phony!’ And when I was done, he just looked at me, smiled sadly, and shook his head with disappointment. And then he said, in voice barely above a whisper, and so softly that it almost made me feel ashamed, ‘there is no such thing as America.’ I felt I had to make it up to him, and promised to do so by writing down what he told me:

It begins five hundred years ago, at the court of a King. The King of Spain, in fact. An enormous palace; silk and velvet; gold, silver, beads, and crowns; candles, servants, and maids. Courtiers who the night before threw down gauntlets at each other’s feet, and now rise at dawn to run each other through with swords; watchmen blowing fanfares from the towers; messengers who hop into the saddle, messengers who leap out of the saddle; the King’s friends and the King’s false friends; women, beautiful and dangerous; and wine; and all about the palace, people whose only purpose was to procure all of these things.

The King knew nothing besides this life, and in the end, life is the same every day. The King was bored. Just as the people of Barcelona imagine that other places are more beautiful, and want to travel to somewhere else.

The poor, of course, imagine how wondeful it would be to live like a king — the King imagines how much better it would be to be poor.

In the morning the King gets up out of bed, in the evening he gets into bed, and during the day he is so bored with his own troubles and with his attendants, his gold, his solver, his velvet and silk and candles. His bed is like a palace all on its own, but what can you do in a bed but sleep.

In the morning, the servants bow to him deeply, and every morning in just the same way. The King does not even notice. At dinner, his fork is handed to him, as is his knife; someone pushes in his chair, and the people around him only say nice things to him, and compliment him, and nothing else at all.

No one ever dares to say, ‘you idiot! You’re a complete blockhead.’ Everything that they say to him today, they said to him yesterday.

Such is life.

And that is why the king has a jester.

A jester can do as he likes, and say what he likes so long as the King laughs, and if they cannot make the King laugh, he kills them, or something like that.

Once he had a jester who loved to play with words. The King enjoyed this greatly. The jester would say ‘so high my mess!’ rather than ‘your highness’, or ‘tassle’ instead of ‘castle’, or ‘dice nay!’ instead of ‘nice day!’. It’s rather silly, to be honest, but the King thought it was hilarious. For a whole six months it made him laugh, until the seventh day of July, and on the eighth, when he got up in the morning and the jester greeted him with ‘dice nay, my high ol’ mess!’ the King ordered his head to be chopped off.

Another jester, who was short and fat and called Pepe, the King enjoyed for only four days. Pepe spread honey on the chairs of the courtiers, all of the nobles, and the knights. On the fourth day he put a big glob of it down on the seat of the throne, and the King no longer found it funny, and Pepe was a jester no more.

After that, the King bought the most terrible jester in the world. He was ugly — thin and fat at the same time, both tall but also short in some ways, and his left leg was bowed. Nobody knew if he could even speak, or if he was completely dumb. His gaze was angry, his face sullen. The only thing nice about him was his name, which was Little Hans.

But then there was his awful laugh. It always started small and glassy and deep in his belly, then gurgled up, until it was a belching that made his face all red and almost made him choke, and then burst out in a big, booming cackle. Then he would smack his knees, and dance about and chortle, and the King loved it, but only because it made everyone else pale and tremble with fear. When Little Hans’ laugh would ring out through the castle, doors were locked and windows barred, shutters closed, and the children were taken to bed with wax in their ears.

The laughter of Little Hans was the most ghastly thing in the world.

Whatever the King said, Little Hans would laugh.

The King said things that couldn’t be funny to anyone, and yet Little Hans still laughed. One day, the King said, ‘Little Hans, I’m going to hang you.’

Oh, how he laughed! He roared out like never before.

So it was decided that Little Hans would be hanged the next day. The King was serious. He wanted to see Hans laugh from the gallows, and wanted to make everyone watch the awful spectacle. But all of the coutiers, the nobility, the knights and the squires, they all hid in their rooms, with the doors locked. The morning of the hanging, it was just Little Hans, the hangman, the King, and his attendants. So the King cried to the attendants, ‘bring me everyone you can find!’ They searched the whole city, but found no one, as everybody was hiding.

Finally, one of the attendants returned with a boy, who they dragged before the King. The boy was small, pale, and shy, and the King had him brought to the gallows and ordered him to watch. The boy looked up at the gallows, clapped his hands in amazement, and said, ‘you’re such a kind King! You’ve built a perch for pigeons! And look, two have already landed.’

‘You’re a half-wit,’ said the King. ‘What’s your name?’

‘I am indeed a fool,’ said the boy, ‘and my name is Colombo. My monther calls me Columbine.’

‘Well, you’re an idiot, Columbine. Someone is about to be hanged,’ said the King.

‘What’s his name?’ asked Columbine, and when the King told him he said ‘aah, that’s a nice name. How can a man with so nice a name be hanged?’

‘His laugh is terrible,’ said the King, and he ordered Little Hans to laugh, and it was twice as bad as the day before.

Columbine said, ‘your highness, what’s so terrible about that?’ The King was surprised, and could not answer, and Columbine went on, ‘I don’t like his laugh much, but the pigeons are still sitting on the gallows. They aren’t frightened. Pigeons have good ears. You should let Little Hans go.’

The King thought about it, and then said, ‘Little Hans, go to hell.’ And for the first time Little Hans spoke, and he said to Columbine, ‘thank you’, and smiled a warm smile, and then went.

The King had no more jesters. The King’s servants and maids and all the courtiers believed, though, that Columbine was the new jester. But Columbine was not funny. He stood around, lost in thought, rarely speaking and never laughing, and never making anyone else laugh. ‘He’s not a jester, he’s an imbecile,’ is what everyone said about him, and Columbine said ‘I’m not a jester, I’m an imecile,’ and then everyone laughed at him.

If the King had known about this, he would have been very angry, but Columbine said nothing about it, because it didn’t bother him at all to be laughed at. At court there were the strong, the intelligent, the King was a king, the women were beautiful and the men brave, the priest was pious and the kitchen maids industrious. Columbine, and Columbine alone, was nothing.

If someone said, ‘Columbine, come and fight me!’ he would say, ‘I am weaker than you.’

If someone said, ‘Columbine, how much is two times seven?’ he would say, ‘I’m dumber than you.’

If someone said, ‘Columbine, I dare you to jump over that stream!’ he would say, ‘no, I don’t think I can.’

And when the King asked Columbine, ‘what do you want to become?’ Columbine would say, ‘I do not want to become anything. I am something, I am Columbine.’

The King said, ‘but you must become something,’ and Columbine said ‘what can one become?’

And the King said, ‘look at that man there, with the beard and the brown, leather face. He is a sailor. He wanted to become a sailor, and he did, and he sailed across the sea and discovered new countries for his king.’

‘If you want, my king,’ said Columbine, ‘I’ll become a sailor.’ At that, the whole court burst out laughing. Columbine ran out of the hall shouting, ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’

Everyone looked at each other and shook their heads, and Columbine ran out of the castle, through the city, and across the fields, and when the farmers who were in the fields greeted him, he called out to them, too: ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’

And so he came to the forest and hid for weeks in the bushes and brambles, and for weeks no one heard a word about Columbine. The King was sorry and blamed himself, and the courtiers were ashamed for laughing. Finally, after weeks and weeks had passed, the watchmen on the tower blew a fanfare and the court rejoiced, for across the fields, through the city, and up to the gate came Columbine, and he went before the King and said, ‘my king, Columbine has discovered a country!’

And because the courtiers did not want to laugh at him, they tried their best to look serious and asked, ‘what is it called and where is it?’ ‘It does not have a name yet, because I have just discovered it, and it is far out to sea,’ said Columbine.

One of the grizzled sailors stood up and said, ‘well, Columbine, I, Amerigo Vespucci, will go and look at this country of yours. Tell me how I get there.’ ‘You go into the sea, and then go straight, and you have to keep going straight and not give up until you come to the country.’ Columbine was terrified, of course, because he knew that what he said was a lie, and that there was no such country. So off went Amerigo Vespucci, and for days and days Columbine could not sleep.

No one knows where Amerigo went. Perhaps he, too, hid in the forest.

Then the trumpets blew, and Amerigo came back.

Columbine was red in the face and dared not to look at the great sailor. Vespucci stood before the King, and said loud and clear, so that all could hear: ‘Your Majesty, O King, the land is there.’

Columbine was so glad that Vespucci had not betrayed him that he ran up to him, hudded him, and cried, ‘Amerigo, my dear Amerigo!’

And the people believed that this was the name of the country, and they called this land that did not exist, ‘America.’

‘You are truly a man,’ the King said to Columbine, ‘and henceforth you shall be called Columbus.’

And Columbus was famous, and all marvelled at him and whispered as he walked past, ‘there he is! The man who discovered America!’

And they all believed that there is such a place. Only Columbus was not sure, and doubted it his whole life, but never dared to ask the sailors for the truth about where they had gone. Soon enough, other people went to America, and then, a great many people. And those who came back all said, ‘America is there!’

‘I,’ said the man who told me this story, ‘I have never been to America. I do not know if America exists. Perhaps people only say that it does, so as not to disappoint Columbus. After all, when you see two people talking about America these days, they wink at each other, and hardly ever say “America”. Instead, they say something vague about “the States” or “over the pond”, or whatever.’ Perhaps when someone gets on a plane or a ship to go to America, they are told the story of Columbus, and hide away somewhere, and come back later to talk about cowboys and skyscrapers, about Niagra Falls and the Mississippi, and cities called ‘New York’ and ‘San Francisco’.

In any case, they all say the same things, and talk about things that they already knew before they left, and that is very suspicious.

And people are always arguing about who Columbus really was.

I know it.

(1969, Kindergeschichten)

Ithaca and Durotar

The last time I found myself back in Nashville, in the back of my mind, the whole time, I knew what I really wanted was to be somewhere else–anywhere, in fact, but home.

I have an uncertain relationship with the concept of “home.” There are, I think, reasons for that–I lived in the same house, from the earliest period in my life I can remember, until I left for college at the age of eighteen. Nor was it a sudden, clean break, setting off for a country three thousand miles away, never to return except at Christmases: rather, my adult existence has proceeded in fits and starts, sometimes feeling like a kind of half-maturity, inhibited by the occasional realization that there are times and seasons in my life when I lack a certain critical resolve, and have found my course bending homeward again, back to Nashville, for a few months, or a year or so. But, of course, in time I always rediscovered that necessary strength, and left again. And it helped that every time, Nashville felt a little less like home.

It is the curious feature of time spent away–which we forget, lulled as we are by the closing of conceptual distance by the jet engine and the automobile–that places continue to change even after we are gone. They change while we’re there, too, of course, in ways both welcome and unwelcome. I am not a big fan of change, especially of the unnecessary sort, as anybody who was there for my childhood will attest, but at least when we’re present for those changes, they feel gradual, and can be incorporated into our internal histories of the places we inhabit. But the changes which accumulate while we are away will always seem to have happened suddenly, and to possess an alien quality, because we were not there to witness them unfold. The house down the street is torn down, or repainted. A new building goes up downtown. The menu changes at your favorite coffee shop, and now the staff are all different, and they don’t know what your usual order is anymore.

And these things might seem small, and it might seem only the peevishness of the stubborn mind, intent on finding flaws in the universe where none really exist, to harp on them, and to find in them small traces of a deep and illimitable sadness. But I do, and it is not peevishness, nor stubbornness, nor merely a penchant for melancholic moods (though I admit I possess all three at times, and not rarely together). But we write the psychohistory of our lives in the places that we know; and in that way, we map our selves to the spaces we have inhabited for years at a time, so surely, I think, that the paths and places where we played as children become for us a metonomy of our childhood as a whole: the creek behind the house, the backyard, the floppy-eared dog, the cracked sidewalks, and everything else. And human memory is a notoriously unsatisfactory device: memories fade with time, are lost, and shift in emphasis as we remember them. So how wonderful it is to turn a corner, or visit a favorite spot, or see a familiar face in one’s hometown, and by the physical sensation find oneself confronted with memories suddenly fresh, suddenly new again, and pieces of a life we had thought lost forever returned to us, even if only for a little while. It helps, of course, if the memories are good ones. As for me, I had what seemed unremarkable at the time, but was in retrospect a very happy childhood. And for that reason, maybe, I especially hate to go home.

With time, of course, the city where I was born, and where I spent the vast majority of the first eighteen years of my life, feels less and less like home. My parents are divorced; a strange man lives in my mother’s house where I grew up. The last time I returned, the house had been rearranged, and my room no longer felt like the little sanctuary I had spent years carefully building for myself. Nashville is now a rather alien place, the city of a Capgras delusion, very like (but not the same as) my home. And the city where I have lived, on and off since, feels more and more like mine, even though I don’t hold the local citizenship, can’t vote in the elections, and have a funny accent. Any place you stay long enough will become inhabited with new memories, just like the places you grew up, and I have been lucky in my adulthood, as I was in my childhood, in that many of them are very good ones.

Tonight, at about three AM, because I couldn’t sleep, I reinstalled World of Warcraft. I’m not sure what exactly my motivation was. The new expansion, of course, is being talked about, and the occasional post bubbling up into my awareness on Reddit. When I really can’t sleep, when I feel my thoughts going endlessly in circles, what I want more than anything is to be taken out of myself, and into another world. RPGs are good for that. So I found myself back in Azeroth, for the first time in, I think, about two and a half years. My Tauren druid, level 85, was standing right where I had left him, in a hut in Orgrimmar, a staff slung over his shoulder, in a motley of armor picked up from various dungeons and quests. The sensation of returning to an avatar I had spent a couple of years inhabiting, in a world I knew as well as my own, was not a little pleasant. Aha, I thought; yes, I remember how *this* goes. The muscle memory of the hotkeys came back quickly enough, and no sooner had the desire formed in my mind, but I had transformed into a hawk and was again soaring through the sky.

And yet, what’s true for Nashville is true for Kalimdor. Out of curiosity, I clicked around on the various social windows World of Warcraft offers. Out of what was once an active membership of a couple dozen people, only five characters still had the <Luminous Path> guild tag. None of them, save Ekhan of course, had been online in years. Half of my friends list was missing entirely, their names replaced by an ominous “UNKNOWN”; even the long list of people I had permanently /ignored over the years was now two-thirds “unknown” entries. Orgrimmar was functionally deserted (of course, the fact that a new expansion had been released, and that it was the small hours of the morning, probably contributed to that). For curiosity’s sake, I later looked up the server’s entry on Wowpedia; of the top-rated Horde and Alliance guilds listed on that page, all of which had been active when the Path was in its heyday, most did not even have their websites up anymore. Ten million people are subscribed to World of Warcraft–just not, apparently, anybody I know.

And it goes deeper than that. I think in a lot of ways, despite its phenomenal success, World of Warcraft is an object lesson in how not to build a good MMORPG. There are a couple reasons for that. Not the absurdity of the stories it tells, or its penchant for scenery-chewing melodrama–I love that about WoW. But its theme-park nature, its grindy gameplay, the inability of the players to meaningfully create their own stories in the world, all stand against the strong lessons games like Minecraft–or even EVE Online–have taught us since. World of Warcraft isn’t a tool for players to create with, like good virtual worlds are, and it certainly doesn’t have that alive-sense that the best have. It is, at best, a carefully curated set of dioramas and theme parks, and thus has to be driven by continuous content-heavy expansions, which, when they fail to appear regularly, tend to result in precipitous drops in the subscription rate. What this means, in real terms, I think, is that if you log in for the first time in six months, you feel out of the loop; if you log in for the first time in two years, you feel you have landed on another planet. Old features, like reputation factions from previous expansions, or endgame content rendered meaningless by a raised level cap, sits there, orphaned and abandoned. That’s not all bad: you might have very fond memories associated with those dungeons. But it’s strange–like coming home and seeing the house next door has been abandoned.

Cataclysm in many ways was a serious error on Blizzard’s part. There were things about that expansion that I loved, but it is not a coincidence that it was in the middle of Cataclysm that we wound down the guild. The stories Cataclysm told were fantastic–Chris Metzen has refined melodrama into, well, not a *high* art exactly, but certainly something I consume with relish, especially where the dynamics of the Horde and the Alliance, and Lovecraftian gods and mad dragons are concerned. But in changing the world so thoroughly, for those of us who inhabited Azeroth for years beforehand, a great deal was lost. I have no strong memories associated with Orgrimmar now, or the Barrens, or Azshara. Those are all zones which, in their previous incarnations (red cliff canyons, endless sere grasslands, high autumnal hills and ancient ruins), I spent an embarassing quantity of time, mostly just running around, and which I knew like the back of my hand. Tonight, though, when I returned to them–well, it’s like coming home, and finding the house next door is now a parking lot.

Parking lots are good. You need somewhere to park your car. But no parking lot in the world is a special place.

None of this is meant as specific criticims of WoW with my video-game-critic hat on; that’s not what I’m interested in at the moment. I really just want to talk about familiar places, and the passage of time.

I have a problem with time–a beef, a fundamental personal disagreement. It has a bigger, more existential component, but only when I spend too much time reading about astronomy on Wikipedia (don’t ask), but the core of this disagreement is simple, and personal. I don’t like it when things change. I don’t like it when things change, because I don’t like to lose people. I don’t mean death (although yes, I have a problem with that too, obviously). I mean in the most mundane, unremarkable sense of loss; I don’t like to lose people. It is partly, but not only pragmatic–I don’t make friends easily, and it’s a pain to make new ones. But more than that, it’s just sad, a little stab of grief, to look up one day and remember that you have not spoken to someone who used to be a good friend in weeks, months, years–that you have no idea what they’re doing or what they’re like now. Or worse, in the age of Facebook, you know exactly what they’re doing: but it’s like looking into their life through glass, because you have no connection to it anymore. You could send them an email, or write them a letter–but what would you say?

I have this problem with time, because it seems unbearably cruel to me that we should live in a world where even the happiest thing it is possible to have in this world, the bright bond of friendship, is subject to the same slow death as every other entropic process in the universe; and crueler still, that the physical matrix in which the memories of such things are embedded should likewise be subject ot the same decay. Time, that old son of a bitch, can keep his mitts off neither Nashville nor Azeroth; and one day, when I have moved away to some other city, with less soul-destroying winters and less rain, and I return to Dublin to visit, I do not think he will have had the courtesy to refrain from meddling in my adopted hometown as well.

And just as it is true that all things are subject to decay, it is true that such decay is never permanent. You do make new friends. You do fill a new place with new memories. There are always more adventures to be had, a little down the road, even if everything that has gone before is in some sense lost. But ain’t it a bitch all the same? For even if unending future joys should wait for us, a little ways further down the line, there is always sorrow behind. It does not crush; it does not overwhelm. But it accumulates in a slow drift beneath us, like the subduction of a tectonic plate, and carries us along.

I do not know if there is a place in this world which will ever feel like home, in the way the place you are born does, when you are a child. For me, it is not Nashville, nor can it ever be again. It isn’t Dublin, not really. In my mind’s eye, it might be a place a little like my brother’s neighborhood in Berlin, with wide, tree-lined streets, flanked by handsome old buildings. And if it were really home, my heart of hearts whispers, it would always be early autumn in a place like that, with a fragrant breeze and the midday sun; and you would know, that maybe not next door, but not far away–just down this street, or that, maybe a couple blocks over–was every friend you had ever had, and every companion you had ever missed. You might see them often, or rarely; but if suddenly one evening the urge struck you, to while away a few hours with someone you had not spoken to in years, you would know just what door to knock on, and there they would be, beloved, and familiar, and glad. It would be a place without partings, sweet or sorrowful, and there, time would have no power to wound or mar our hearts, because however far we went away, we would return safe in the knowledge this was where we were meant to be all along.