While I’d claim to enjoy viewing art, two to three hours strolling through most collections can give me museum fatigue. Stepping out on the street, however, I gawk astonished on the colors, forms, and composition of everyday objects. Traffic light, mini-skirt, trash can, movie poster, hubcap, a wad of gum: suddenly the world’s transformed, exposed. I feel like the kid with X-ray specs from the ad at the back of comic books. The luster and lineaments of ordinary artifacts take on giddy energy as if the hand of an estranging god were shaping a terrible beauty before my eyes.
The first time I remember this experience was during my high school years. The suction of the revolving doors slurped shut as I exited MoMA. The brisk autumn air of Midtown slapped my face. Dusk-light reveled on the iridescent cloud scud, and I stared down the crevice between office towers where every window was awash in flame. The monoliths seemed marshaled from glacial shadows. As I pressed through the urban vortex of faces, freaks, and fashions with a friend on whom I had a crush, a gulf of freedom opened in untold directions. On a lark, we’d taken a Greyhound several hours that morning. Now we wandered lost in the grid of nighttime Manhattan. I wasn’t from a small town; I was from a barren field, a clod of dirt. To my young, provincial eyes, the city in its madcap flux appeared a vast network of creation, a quasar emitting the voltage of a trillion stars and warping all the space around it.
This is the dark side of science fiction prophecy. “Wow, I was right!” can turn quickly into “Yikes, I was right!” You almost envy Cassandra, the Trojan princess who was doomed by the gods to be always correct yet disbelieved. “I was never able to predict,” William Gibson demurred in an interview with GQ. “But I could sort of curate what had already happened.” When it was brought to his attention that the global disasters he had envisioned in his 2014 novel, “The Peripheral,” seemed to be happening even before it was published, Gibson admitted: “That makes me very uncomfortable.”
Often, when we argue about books, it’s as well to ask ourselves if there isn’t an issue of competence that divides us. Time and again, I’ve realized I’d better shut my mouth when someone points out something of which I was simply ignorant, something that shifts the whole picture. As an Englishman living in Italy, discussing Italian literature with Italians, this is perhaps inevitable. In this regard, arguing about books can have the function, however mortifying, of reminding you that for a book to happen more fully and satisfyingly, you will have to change.
But there will be other questions, too, or areas where “competence” shades into something less easily defined. Does a book set in Amsterdam require that I know Amsterdam, or a story about chronic pain require that I have some experience of that unhappy condition? Surely not. Perhaps the whole point of the book was to bring Amsterdam, or the reality of chronic pain, to someone who doesn’t know it. Yet, if I do know the territory, the book shifts. Certainly, if I’m more familiar with Amsterdam than the author is, my reading may be less satisfying to me than the reading of someone who must take the city as described.
Almost all major religions, monotheistic or otherwise, have featured some hierarchy of reward and penalty after death. The specifics are debated—some faiths describe endless torture, others a place for introspection—but the concept of consequences in the afterlife has been a constant. Is our waning attachment to hell, then, a momentary blip, or are believers finally ready for faith that isn’t tied to fear of everlasting agony?
As Nova Scotia–based journalist and author Marq de Villiers explores in his new book, Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, our ideas around what happens after death have always been in flux. De Villiers’ text is a deliciously cynical analysis of the afterlife viewed from a variety of historical and literary perspectives. He opens with a simple query, “What is this thing called hell?” Though, like any question wrapped up in thousands of years of religious interpretation, it depends on whom you ask.
Restaurant design trends come and go: Dark walls, bare bricks, and Edison bulbs give way to white-washed spaces accented with natural wood and succulents. The latest restaurant-interior fad, however, is not a checklist of design hallmarks, but a single color: pink.
Alan Turing asked: can machines think? He then replaced that question with his Turing test, before adding that it was “too meaningless to deserve discussion”. Perhaps he felt, as Dijkstra did, that asking if machines can think is like asking if submarines can swim: the answer rests on how far we choose to extend a metaphor from the biological to the artificial world. Unlike Turing, Du Sautoy is captivated by his original question (can machines be creative?) and seems to mistrust his own test (the Lovelace test).
If he reaches a conclusion it is that consciousness is necessary for creativity, and so the behavioural Lovelace test is insufficient. This is not in itself an unreasonable claim, but it naively intrudes on a prominent body of psychology that attempts to carefully isolate what function, if any, consciousness fulfils. It is also a conclusion that was available to Du Sautoy from the armchair, before he embarked on his enjoyable, circuitous journey: it turns out he didn’t need AI to reach his destination after all.
His hands were shaped into ivy leaves
that climbed up the tree, camouflage
for its inner rings, tickling the light.
Horse chestnut buds had given them
a stickiness which the rains could not
wash off. Touch them, he said.