I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.
I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.
I have just returned and I still like words.
May I have a few with you?
385 Madison Avenue
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
— J. G. Ballard
What is the good of curbing sensuality, shaping the intellect, securing the supremacy of reason? Imagination lies in wait as the most powerful enemy.
I have been thinking of imagination with reference to two movies. The first is the 1993 Tamil heist movie Thiruda Thiruda. It’s been a long time since I saw the movie, and the plot itself is a little iffy in my mind. But what set off this particular train of thought was the sequence in this caper story when the movie’s two protagonists – two burglars – along with the woman they save from committing suicide, get their hands on a big loot. Their joy on being in possession of such money is portrayed as a song. Vairamuthu’s mettle as a lyricist shines through here as the trio gush on screen about what they want from this newly-acquired money. This song is proof of what splendid magic human imagination is capable of. Please have a listen.
I tried to translate the lyrics into English with my working knowledge of Tamil, and I knew I was coming up short. These are after all thoughts of wanting a brand new earth, a new sky everyday, twin moons, colourful twinkling stars and flowers that speak that I am attempting to constrain. That said, here are the concluding two paragraphs of the song in English, knowing all too well that I have taken away the beauty of the original. This translation is to show you some more of the things this trio desires.
panjap pasi poakka vaeNdum
paalaivanam pookka vaeNdum
saandhdhi saandhdhi endRa sanggeedham
sugam aendhdhi aendhdhi vandhdhu vizha vaeNdum
Want famine and hunger to go away
Want deserts to bloom
Want a song that is peace
to come flitting with its carriage of happiness
poanavai ada poagattum
vandhdhavai ini vaazhattum
thaesathin ellai koadugaL avai theerattum
theyvangaL indhdha maNNilae vandhdhu vaazhattum
Let bygones be bygones
Let that which is here, live
Let the boundaries of nations fade away
Let the gods descend to live on this earth
I am often reminded of that scene from The Italian Job (2003) when Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and the entire gang is standing atop the Alps celebrating their successful heist, discussing what they would do with their share of the loot. Everyone has plans for things to do with their money, except for Norton’s character. It’s another thing that he betrays his gang, but when he does get to live the big life, his house has the exact things his friends had dreamt of.
Here’s the scene that unfolds atop the Alps.
Left Ear (Mos Def): So come on, gentlemen, shopping list. Who’s doing what? Spare no dirty details.
John (Donald Sutherland): Come on, guys. Take a lesson from an old man. Don’t spend it. Invest.
Left Ear: In what?
John: In gold.
Left Ear: What are you getting, Rob?
Handsome Rob (Jason Statham): Ah, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things you can get with a lot of money. You know, I’m just thinking about naked girls in leather seats.
Left Ear: Obviously. See?
Handsome Rob: Suppose I’ll get the Aston-Martin Vanquish. There’s not a lot a girl won’t do in the passenger seat of one of those things.
Lyle (Seth Green): I’m gonna get a NAD T-770 digital decoder with a seventy-watt amp and and Burr Brown DAC’s.
Left Ear: [at a loss] Yeah…
Lyle: It’s a big stereo. Speakers so loud, they blow women’s clothes off.
Handsome Rob: Now you’re talking!
Left Ear: Thirty-five million dollars, you can’t get more creative than that, man? I’m going to Andalusia. The south of Spain. Right over there. [points] Get me a big house, get me a library full of first editions, get a room for my shoes… What about you, Steve?
Steve Bendel (Edward Norton): I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.
Left Ear: You haven’t decided yet? Come on, man. Is it the mountain air? Just —
Steve: I liked what you said. I’ll take one of each of yours.
Left Ear: [Laughs] Well here’s to two of everything for Steve!
Much later in the movie, when the team is planning their revenge on Norton, here’s what Wahlberg’s character says to Norton’s. I find it very, very telling and symptomatic of what’s missing and what’s wrong with life in general.
You’ve got no imagination. You couldn’t even decide what to do with all that money, so you had to buy what everybody else wanted.
Sometimes I wonder if the predicaments we go and entrench ourselves in are the result of a woeful lack of imagination. Stay real, they say. But do we even know what is reality?
A few years back I was attempting to write a story. And as would be expected, I kept losing track of what I wanted my story to do over the course of the writing. I don’t seem to remember why, but to steer the story forward, I kept telling myself: Put in a monkey there. That was a supremely genius move. Not! Predictably, the monkey pranced around with my characters and a lot of fun was had. And not surprisingly, the story only remains in my head till date. The monkey was just all over the place. Maybe if I can refurbish a purpose for that monkey, I can have that story move from my head on to paper. Maybe. Does that mean Icarus should have been told what the Sun would do to his wax wings?
PS. A synthesis of thoughts old and new, some from my old blog, repurposed for this post.
Because somedays are just like that. Your To-Do List sitting smugly atop your table smirks at you. You imagine it saying to you in a Krishnamurti-esque voice: Here’s the chasm between the observer and the observed, and, boy, are you screwed! (PS. I am disowning that To-Do List; it’s very uncouth!)
Because somedays the deliriously delightful wordplay is the only thing that makes sense to you. “Contrary to Keatsian joy,” you spout, when someone asks how you are doing. And as is the wont, that someone suddenly remembers an appointment with the vet for his non-existent cat. Cats are evil anyway, you shrug. Except, if that someone were Schroedinger. In which case, the cat would have been a Keatsian joy.
Because language is really one anal egg in need of a glorious u. This discovery is coming home. This is the place where the exasperated you inevitably would have come. You rest, and take off again on journeys known and unknown until the inglorious you again meets the glorious you in the home that you made for yourself.
Because I am talking of Bob Hicok’s The Pregnancy of Words. Do read it, I can’t recommend it enough. To read Hicok say to have no clue what a natural disaster is when that disaster is us, feels like all the words that were yours have melted into a goo floating around in your head. And for some reason I can’t fathom, the only word – a loan word – that remains in my head is weltanschauung. It’s a word that sounds profound; so profound that the word itself might have a philosophy of its own. You sit back and wait. Weltanschauung doesn’t profer its pearls. You wait for the melt in your head to crystallise back into words that are yours.
Warning: This post contains hideous little-known secrets (redundancy is fun). Read at your own risk.
Going crazy on a Monday like every other day? Well, not any more. Read on, and you’ll finally find the courage (protip: look behind the sofa) to self-administer a full frontal lobotomy.
Mark Twain once famously said: Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint. A prescient man, Twain. But it’s not just the so called health books. Any book can prove fatal. Think: paper cuts. Ouch! Or even think of two-thousand page tomes classified as handbooks. You just have to drop (up) one accidentally on your head. And the rest will be an admixture of mangled anatomy and sad irony.
Read this. (Again, at your own risk.) The author here recounts several anecdotes confirming the dangerousness of reading. As you begin, you’ll see how The Brothers Karamazov is capable of inflicting more than just spiritual injury. And do have a look (or two, or ten) at the cartoon accompanying the article. Here it is for your viewing pleasure. Have a gander. And while you are at it, have a goose as well.
And finally, here’s a cautionary poem by Barbara Hamby titled Reading Can Kill You. Decide for yourself if she is half or quarter or three-fourths kidding.
Curiosity killed the cat, they say. I am beginning to wonder if Curiosity is a book.
So. The proof as you can see has long migrated from the pudding, and now rests squarely in this post. Like a wise person once said, the moral of Snow White is never eat apples.
(Originally written on 1 September, 2013.)
Not just because the markets are flooded with them. But more so because the following is an exquisite primer on philosophy, gastronomy, and the how-to of staying a mile away from the Heimlich. 😉
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.
– Charles Simic, from Return to a Place Lit By a Glass of Milk
“What’s that word beginning with an S, that denotes an assorted medley of things?” I asked myself this question a couple of days ago as I was in the midst of writing something, and was all of a sudden stumped for that word beginning with an S.
“I miss C.,” that was my instant thought in answer to the question. C. would have known the right answer to my question.
I didn’t e-mail C. I didn’t reach out for my Thesaurus. I sat quietly for a while. I thought—not hard. Eventually, the word rose from the depths of my mind like a diva in pristine white. It was a sight to behold.
Smorgasbord. I had never loved this word before. It was too rich for my taste; I always saw a multihued extravaganza in it. It had never occurred to me all along that it was a prism that I was missing.
In 1934, a New York copywriter resigned from his well paying job and headed to Hollywood with dreams of making it as a screenwriter. The following is the letter he sent out to the who’s who in business. The letter fetched him three interviews, one of which led to a job as a junior writer at MGM.
I exchange my life for words.
Weak, uncertain currency.
Anna Kamienska, I want to kiss you for writing those words. Truth, beauty, resonance I find them all in there.
I too have exchanged my life for something I know not what, but words constitute a major part of it. Most days, I don’t know what to make of the words I write, but a life without words — I don’t even want to imagine it.
A collection of odd notes put together for this post.
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Zinc oxide is philosopher’s wool. It is formed when zinc burns in air. The white fumes that form as a result of this burning produce a wool like substance, earning it the epithet – philosopher’s wool.
I went on Google Books to find some early references of the oxide, and what I found thrilled me.
The first is a treatise titled Chemical Instructor: Presenting a Familiar Method of Teaching the Chemical Principles and Operations of the Most Practical Utility to Farmers, Mechanics, Housekeepers and Physicians and Most Interesting to Clergymen and Lawyers. Intended for Schools and Popular Class-room by Amos Eaton. This was published in 1822. Eaton famously co-founded the Rensselaer School for ‘the application of science to the common purposes of life’ and was an advocate for the inclusion of women in science.
The following is an image from his treatise on Google Books describing the classroom demonstration of the preparation of philosopher’s wool.
And the following are two rather telling highlights from the Preface of the same treatise.
Here’s another book titled Chemical experiments : illustrating the theory, practice, and application of the science of chemistry, and containing the properties, uses, manufacture, purification, and analysis of all inorganic substances : with numerous engravings of apparatus, etc. by G. Francis. This was published in 1842.
The very first paragraph of the Preface here reads:
The Chemist and Druggist will find in this small book the best method of manufacturing every chemical substance which he is likely to want. The Lecturer will recognize the most remarkable properties of them all, clearly pointed out by such experiments as are easy and striking. The Student will be able to refer to and to repeat the experiments of the classroom with facility. The Manufacturer will find the economical principles of his trade illustrated and the best receipts for his articles given. While he who seeks amusement only will have a wide field before him, from which he may cull the choicest flowers; and should his means be limited, or his residence remote from cities, still little impediment will arise on this account, as one portion of the book assists the other; one experiment explains the manufacture of that substance of which other experiments explain the nature.
Sample this first page from the Introduction chapter which talks of chemistry in those days, which was a part of Natural Philosophy.
And here’s the combustion of zinc described in the form of a laboratory experiment rather than as a demonstration in the previous treatise.
Reading such texts, how can one miss the romantic appeal of chemistry? I hope more and more chemistry (science) educators take it upon themselves to incorporate such examples from the history of chemistry (science) to enthuse students towards the subject, and to inculcate in them an understanding and appreciation of the development of the subject.
PS. Here’s a poem by Brian Culhane titled Philosopher’s Wool from Able Muse, Winter 2009 issue.
Images from Google Books and archive.org