Thursday, September 09, 2010

Art and Technology, or, the Magic of Chiral Letters and Trains

One of the odd lines I overheard at the Chesterton Conference was something regarding a tension or division between "art" and "technology". I laughed, since it is so a-Chestertonian. Note: I did not say anti-Chestertonian. It is not so much against GKC as much as "lacking" or "avoiding"; perhaps I should say without GKC. Do I mean this as some sort of unkind retaliation against whoever said it? Of course not. We don't go into such personal things here. Besides, it would not be quite right, as I don't have any actual statement about the matter to examine. Besides, I might as well go into a debate with Father Jaki about what he called the "Impassable Divide", which was his way of trying to examine the variety of fields of study. (He was too much of a student of Cardinal Newman to jump to the wrong conclusion about this, but more on that another time.) Rather, I just take the chance adjacency of these words - "art" and "technology"... No. I really need to say "chance conflict" there, though I will grab onto that "adjacency" for examination in just a little.

But first I want to show you how Chesterton dealt with this sort of conflict. It's quite elegant, especially since his words provide a precise paradigm for us in this case. It comes up in a remarkably relevant way, where he is (as Father Jaki puts it) writing as a Seer of Science:
The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. It is the ignorance and not the knowledge that produces the current notion that free thought weakens theism. It is the real world, that we see with our own eyes, that obviously unfolds a plan of things that fit into each other.
[GKC, The Thing CW3:170-1]
We could do this as musicians when given violin parts in C and simply transpose for our E-flat and B-flat saxes. But it's funnier to me because we don't even have to do that much work!
The general notion that art establishes a-technology is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Art is the Latin for skill. A-technology is the Greek for lack of skill. It is not self evident that lack of skill is the goal of skill.
Yes. You see, the Latin word ars, artis and the Greek tecnh (pronounced "techE", with a long e at the end) mean the same thing - skill, human cleverness, "art" in the widest sense. The opposite to these terms is rather surprising: it is natura or ingenium in Latin, or fusiV in Greek (pronounced "physis") - that is things which are natural in their work, and emphatically not human. (Incidentally, all this is from dictionaries and other references, and is not "my" opinion; if you don't like it, you'll have to take it up with them, and not me. Or perhaps you'd prefer to join me in my new university, which will deal with all these things in a just manner.)

Now what is particularly funny about this is the real opposition (at least from the words themselves) is not between "art" and "technology" but between "technology" and "engineering"! Oh yes - engineering descends to us from ingenium, and really means "something you're born with". Amazing.

But for Chestertonians - and indeed for all those who appreciate words like "catholic" (not upper-case) - we do not have a conflict; we do not face an impassable divide. We are following a well-trodden path; Newman and Chesterton and others have pointed the way to an excellent bridge. We know that God is just another Name for "truth" - even that atheist attests to this when (finding himself without God) he immediately created one as the device which detects truth! (Hee hee hee!) Just this past week I found another stunning link from Newman to Chesterton - and indeed to Duhem and Jaki. I can't give the whole essay, but I will just give the trigger sentence for you:
Though sacred truth was delivered once for all, and scientific discoveries are progressive, yet there is a great resemblance in the respective histories of Christianity and of Science.
[Newman, University Sketches 14: "Supply and Demand: the Schoolmen"]
Ah... does that sound familiar? Here's how Chesterton put it, in that classic debate between the Catholic MacIan and the Atheist Turnbull:
[MacIan said:]"...there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church."

"Physical science and the Catholic Church!" said Turnbull sarcastically; "and no doubt the first owes a great deal to the second."

"If you pressed that point I might reply that it was very probable," answered MacIan calmly. "I often fancy that your historical generalizations rest frequently on random instances; I should not be surprised if your vague notions of the Church as the persecutor of science was a generalization from Galileo. I should not be at all surprised if, when you counted the scientific investigations and discoveries since the fall of Rome, you found that a great mass of them had been made by monks."
[GKC The Ball and the Cross chapter 8]
I would suggest this excerpt when faced with the question, "Did Chesterton know of Pierre Duhem?" Duhem, of course, is the great French thermodynamicist and historian of science; next Tuesday marks the 94th anniversary of his death. He wrote the ten-volume Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic which examines in huge and meticulous detail the actual development of science during the Middle Ages. (See Jaki's Science and Creation chapter 10 "The Sighting of New Horizons" for details, or his biography, Uneasy Genius: : The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem.)

It would be fun to go into this further - I know some people like such debates - but I want to go into something even more difficult today. Last week we talked briefly about "chirality" - the idea that the basic chemicals of life come in two forms, mirror images of each other, possessing the paradoxical sameness/differentness as the left hand and the right hand. (Though as Sheila points out, all living things use only the L-form.) Today I wish to tell you a little more about the mystery of right-and-left, or rather about that "adjacency" I mentioned a little earlier, and show you how it enters into another field of study. No, not chemistry, but literature.

Oh yes. You see, I know where the bridge is - or perhaps I should say the Gate... and so I can "go in and out" (see John 10:9) It is remarkable (no, not my insight, but the truth of the thing) perhaps because it arises in such a strange and hard-to-see place that few ever spot it. It really takes a Chestertonian perspective, as we say over and over here: "the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing." [GKC Tremendous Trifles ch 1]

That mystery arises for me in particular because I am a computer scientist, and have to deal with extremely detailed matters which very VERY few people ever touch, and most never even suspect even exist! Last November I posted the story of how I shocked an intelligent young man by showing him how a computer cannot add. (Well, speaking as a computer scientist, I know computers cannot add; after all, computers do not even deal with "numbers" - but people persist in thinking such silly things. Computers, however, will do what I tell them, as long as I tell them correctly, and then they do it very fast. Ahem.) Well, today I must tell you (who I am sure are also intelligent, though you may be older or younger, male or female) a little more about what computers can and cannot do...

No. I won't. This is NOT a blogg about computers. I will use another analogy, one which I delight in, and which for me long antedates my awareness of computers.

I live in a famous town, a town whose name appears on a very popular board game - for a number of reasons I do not care to mention it here. The name of this town happens to look like the English gerund for what one does with books - which may explain a little about me - but it is not pronounced like that gerund. I live just three blocks from the railroad (that's how the name appears on that board game) and I have known that railroad from a very early age. Perhaps you also like trains; children do tend to admire them - and we know how Chesterton admired them:
For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys' habit in this matter.
[GKC ILN July 21 1906 CW27:239]
Here is yet another project for a wise student to pursue: GKC on trains. Ah. I must quote one other, to set up my argument correctly:
The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!
[GKC The Man Who Was Thursday CW6:479]
(Of course you must remember that "Bradshaw" means the book of train schedules.) Oh my, you look pale. Did I just say something evil? I told you this would be much more a cause of debate than my struggle over "art" and "technology". Let me say it again, in isolation, in case you missed the fighting words:

Man is a magician.

Oh my oh my.

Yes. Let us proceed with our lesson, shall we? Wands out, then, class.

You don't have a wand? Oh yes you do... I have a bunch here on my desk. I use them a lot, even though I also use a computer. My favourite is made of a very special sort of wood, and contains a core which has a remarkable power... contained in that core are countless spells. Oh yes, let's say that NASTY word again...


(hee hee!) Have I made it clear yet what that wand is?

Oh, perhaps not. (sigh) But then let's talk about what comes out of those wands. You see, as hard as it may be for you to realize, what comes out is just like those trains. While the wand is in your hand - ah - above the paper, it is like the empty track. It is nothing at all... it is a mystical expectation, it is that strange line from "Little Town of Bethlehem" about the "silent streets" filled with "hopes and fears of all the years"... or, as Chesterton told us about a writer with "writer's block":
"He did no work lately; sometimes sat and stared at a blank sheet of paper as if he had no ideas."
"Or as if he had too many," said Gabriel Gale.
[GKC "The Purple Jewel" in The Poet and the Lunatics]
But then - ah, then, with a rush of noise like the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost, with a blaze of fire and smoke (in the old days when they were steam-driven) comes the Engine... that first and most mystic of the mystical components of the train! Behind it, in that grand order, which is the First Rule of Heaven, comes a chain of cars, linked at their ends - and on they roll.

But each must follow, according to that order. Not one can ever depart from the forward motion of the Engine... Once the handedness has been chosen, all the train cars, all the monomers (to use the chemistry term) must abide by the chosen direction.

There is a mystery here. Yes, you can yap at me for pretending that there is some occult thing lurking in a common pencil - but I shall defend (as Chesterton's Gabriel Syme) that Man is a magician, and never more so as when he wields that mighty wand full of spells... er, spelling.

The secret, of course, is that every single letter comes with two hidden and marvellous hands, and they are as distinct as our left hand from our right hand. Oh yes. Our letters are chiral. They are like the railroad cars, and they must follow the engine in proper order.

Now you will not see them, if you pick up a Q or even an X, and examine it under a powerful magnifying lens. These hands aren't seen in that manner.

However, if you have ever managed to see the OLD kind of printing press, where there are actual cases of type - that is, separate little chunks of metal, one for EACH letter - you will have a hint of those hands. You see, I am not talking about the SHAPE of the letters - some of which do possess some interesting symmetries. I am talking about the letters-in-themselves, in the sense that they are powerless unless they are combined into words. But when they are combined, they must abide by the rules of order. They must all stand on their "feet" and all with the "nick" facing in the same direction. (These are the technical terms applied to a single type block.) Yes, there really is a left hand of S and a right hand of H, and they join as mightily as two train cars (though usually not with quite the same crash; I've watched the making up of trains at the local train yard.) They also are like the amino acids - they only combine with the expenditure of energy, and the combination is signified by an advance along an ever-growing chain. That word "chain" is important; in computing, or rather in the branch of finite math where we study the theory of this sort of thing, we speak of "concatenation" - this comes from the Latin catena = chain, and refers to the act of joining two strings (two ordered collections) into one. Concatenation is reminiscent of the idea of "adding", and there are certain similarities, but there are also important differences - specifically there is NO difference, I mean there is no "subtraction"... but I must not go into this fascinating matter further today.

The mystery I am trying to display for you is that these letters - which you are perceiving and yet paradoxically ignoring as you read my writing - these letters are just like a man with his hands spread out on either side. They are like the train cars, linking together at their ends. (You do NOT stack train cars one on top of the other, or side against side; those are not trains but wrecks.) Even when you play Scrabble or work a cross-word puzzle, you MUST abide by this rule: you will always truly link "left hand to right hand" even though you arrange the physical letters in a vertical sense.

Yes, you can say that palindromes (words like "noon" or "radar") work both ways - they are ambidextrous, if you insist. But such are rare. You can also put your switch engine at the rear of the train and push it along - I've seen that done, but it is also rare.

What is the point of all this? The point is my poor attempt at shining light on something you may have not ever noticed: that there exists in each letter two little "connectors" - a right hand and a left hand, just like the amino and the carboxyl groups in an amino acid (which build proteins), or like the 5-prime and the 3-prime hydroxyls in nucleotides (which build DNA or RNA), or like the two couplers at the ends of a freight car (which build a train). Those "hands" are bound, not to the letter in its graphical form, but to the letter-as-it-is. "S" has a certain shape, and as a Scrabble tile it may fit above or below, left or right; but as an idea it can be enigne, car, or caboose: it may Start a word or come in the midSt, or at the end of other letterS - and in each case it always keeps its right hand distinguished from its left. It is in this binding that the mystery and the power of WORD occurs: the distinction which keeps "GOD" from running into "DOG" or into "GDO" (short for "grid dip oscillator" a tool used by radio engineers) or keeps "LIVE" and "EVIL" apart.

It is not for nothing that the wizards of fantasy speak of the power of a spell. We know what power there is in a spell. Remember that next time you pick up your pencil or pen - or when you see a train go by.

1 comment:

  1. I guess the "hands" of letters would be easier to see if this post were in cursive. Or if, like Greek, the letter S were different when it's terminal.

    Though, I do think I understand what you mean when you say the "hands" are more of a spiritual (as in, not-physical) thing, not a visible graphic. I *think.*


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