On Intention (part 3)

(read from the beginning)

Tim: On this rare occasion, while I’m in the lead, allow me to reciprocate your question from earlier. Why do you pursue your profession? Why are you in the health care business?

Zak: To help people. A lot of adults are forced to work just for money. I count myself fortunate that my line of work can also be altruistic.

Tim: That sounds generally reasonable, but less so in the context of our current discussion. What if your actions don’t effect the good ends you have in mind? What if your company just devolves into another one of many cases of corporate greed in America? Then you would be only another business man.

Zak: So you’re a communist?

Tim: No, today I’m too busy being a fatalist to be anything else. I don’t propose a solution to systemic avarice, I only recognize it as a problem.

Zak: But you’re not only a fatalist, you’re also a miscreant. This “massive structuralist mechanism” of yours, if it’s not a machine, then what is it?

Tim: It’s the fatal consequence of a vast web of interdependent states.

Zak: Interdependent states? States of the world?

Tim: If you like. Or of the language that construes human experience within that world.

Zak: But how are they interdependent? There is structure, but what kind of structure? Is it communist or monarchical?

Tim: Well…

Zak: I’m almost afraid to ask: returning to language specifically, does one linguistic decision determine those that follow, in some kind of hierarchy, or are all decisions created equally?

Tim: Have you seen the way I write poetry?

Zak: That’s why I was afraid to ask.

Tim: But I will concede. Generally speaking, in order for language to function, a society or an individual must make some decisions before others, and those preceding decisions necessarily limit the ones that follow.

Zak: For example?

Tim: For example. When the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes collectively decided that the porto-english language would not adopt the Romantic system of grammatical gender, they may have limited the structural function that gender could play in the society at large. Not all nouns would necessarily carry a feminine or masculine connotation, the attribution of adjectives would be more ambiguous, and male/female would be more of a private distinction than a social institution.

Zak: And hence the gender distinction is supposed to apply not at all to public social functions, like the work place, the family etc, but only to the bedroom.

Tim: Somehow that is supposed to be the case at present, although this structural mechanism will continue to guide society toward its natural consequence. We have proto-english speakers to thank, at least in part.

Zak: Ok. So each structural choice is predicated on the ones that come before it.

Tim: Where are you going with this?

Zak: Precisely where we should have begun: providence.

Tim: I knew you had a trick up your sleeve.

Zak: In fact. This whole structuralist mechanism of yours consists in a series of contingent entities. New words are predicated on old ones, subordinate clauses depend on main ones, etc. But the chain of dependency can’t regress infinitely—

Tim: —Or can it?

Zak: I’m a classicist, so no: there must at some point be a primal Word from which all language derives its meaning. A Word which means nothing other than itself. Fate, then, is not actually fate at all. The whole universe is really one massive Text, written by the authorial hand of providence.

But the will of Zeus was carrying out its end.

‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, plans to give you a hope and a future.’

One must wonder whether your philological notion of textual “corruption” is not blasphemous to the Divine Intention, which is, of necessity, fully realized through the intelligent manipulations of the structure that recontextualizes and redeems human fallibility. Is not the authorial intent of man rather a corruption of the all encompassing Text written by the hand of God?

Tim: Then all human effort is vain?

Zak: How does that follow?

Tim: All literature written by men is like a palimpsest from the medieval period. Just like a medieval scribe, God intends to, and will, scrape off the original writing to make space for a new text. Then what’s the point of writing the original?

Zak: You’re the one that bothers with that. You should tell me, what’s the point of composition?

Tim: It’s pointless.

Zak: Have you read Boethius’ On The Consolation of Philosophy?

Tim: I’ve read the menus at some very fateful steakhouses.

Zak: Then what about Seneca’s essay On Providence.

Tim: With equal regret, I have experienced providence’s intentions for that much meat.

Zak: You should really learn Latin. Get some culture in your life.

Tim: A fair critique.

Zak: Anyway, we mustn’t suppose that recontextualizing is the same thing as undermining or invalidating the original. It is, in fact, much more artistic. It’s about finding unusual uses for preexisting material. God is a master jazz improviser who allows himself the liberty to make mistakes, always with the foresight and virtuosity to work around those indeterminacies so that they don’t result as mistakes at all. A “wrong note” or a “corruption” might easily turn into a highlight of the whole composition.

Tim: You make me feel unconscionably warm and fuzzy.

Zak: If to contradict the Divine was a mistake on the part of man, that blemish rises to something more beautiful in the context of soteriological sacrifice. Contradiction, after all, presupposes that the entities involved are not one in the same thing; when the Divine substitutes himself on our behalf, this presupposition is rendered false, and the contradiction that follows becomes ineffectual.

Tim: So the significance of human action depends on the structural context determined by Providence.

Zak: Precisely.

Tim: But it’s strange, isn’t it?

Zak: What?

Tim: Do you really think that context and structure are the source of meaning, or is it the other way around? Is my meaning the consequent of the relationships between words, or are those relationships determined by what I intend to express?

Zak: Maybe a bit of both. Why?

Tim: If Providence is sovereign over structure, my intentions do not factor in at all, because in the face of Divine Imperialism they are powerless to determine meaningful linguistic relationships. This is all very existential. It means that we have no access to the authorial intent of our fellow man.

Zak: I do suppose you’re right… I do… unless those intentions and the strategy of Providence should result in one and the same thing.


On Intention (part 2)

(read part 1)

Tim: It’s just… Let me ask you this—did Beethoven write the ninth symphony “rationally and thoughtfully”?

Zak: I imagine he did.

Tim: And Einstein, was he mad and absent-minded when he discovered Relativity?

Zak: I see no reason to believe so.

Tim: And what about that calculated feat of engineering, was Mr. Andrews at all perfunctory when designing the Titanic?

Zak: No, I suppose he was not.

Tim: Then explain to me this. Why on earth, when to all appearances these men acted perfectly reasonably and in good conscience, why or for what shortcoming did their respective works become the foundation of the atomic bomb, the boat grave of more than 1,500 people, and a favorite music to unify that certain nationalist party during the former half of last century? What moral fault did these failures reflect?

Zak: Well I don’t know.

Tim: So Good intentions, at least in this case, don’t equate to Good ends?

Zak: In this case they do not.

Tim: Zak, have you ever been to a frat party?

Zak: My school was too Christian.

Tim: Have you seen the way some people hug each other when they’ve been apart for a few minutes?

Zak: You’ll have to be more specific.

Tim: That absurdly over-the-top gesture. You know, some people think it makes them look high class. They seem like they’ve had too much coffee or something.

Zak: hmm.

Tim: In Milan people kiss each other. Right cheek then left. But sometimes they just kiss the air, sometimes it’s a very empty formality… like a woman finally telling a man for the first time after ten years that she loves him, thereupon only to leave him.

Zak: That’s very specific.

Tim: The point is, what’s the moral weight of those words: “I love you”? Are Good gestures always equivalent to Good will?

Zak: I suppose they are not.

Tim: So Good outcome does not entail Good intention nor Good intention Good outcome.

Zak: It risks appearing so.

Tim: “It risks appearing so?” Now you just sound silly; if only there were an effective way to translate those Platonic Greek phrases.

Zak: εὖγε!

Tim: Further to that point, I’d like to take a moment as the author of this dialogue, to personally apologize for its aesthetic failures. I assure you that they are not the outcome of bad intention, only of bad planning. Usually I like to make my characters vague and mysterious enough that the reader can’t tell if they’re boring. In this case, I didn’t have the time or energy, so the secrete’s out: my characters are two dimensional at root.

Zak: Are you calling me shallow?

Tim: Not you, just your persona.

Zak: Got it. Well I’m sure the readers can overlook that. The philosophic pedantry is entertaining enough in itself.

Tim: That’s very generous of you. I guess sometimes bad writing is better than good writing. Anyway, as I was saying, we appear to have very little control over the outcome of our actions.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

We’re all caught up in this massive structuralist mechanism. I wouldn’t call it a machine, but I understand why some people might have a predilection for that image. As each of us slowly parishes from this life, we are overwhelmed by external forces over which we exhibit no agency. All this runs contrary to intuitions about our moral capacity for action.

Zak: Moral action is impossible?

Tim: Well the issue is essentially this: I may have control over my own use of language, but insofar as significance is predicated on context, I cannot control that, because I can’t control the language of those around me. In that case, what’s the point of being able to control one’s own words in the first place?

Zak: I’m not sure I follow.

Tim: Perhaps Beethoven wrote a symphony which, to him, expressed the beauty of the human experience and the brotherhood of man. For all that intention, he could do nothing to stop posterity from contextualizing it as an expression radical nationalism… nor, for that matter, from repurposing it yet again, this time as the official anthem of the United Nations. At the present moment the piece may happen to enjoy good fortune, but the whole case just speaks to the fact that language is whore. She submits freely to anyone and everyone.

Zak: Indeed, context matters. But usually I’m the one to point out the futility of the arts. Where are you going with this?

Tim: I have no control over where I’m going.

Zak: Hmm. Then let me ask you this—why do you compose music? Is it just to dwell on the powerlessness of human existence?

Tim: It’s a good question. A very strategic one.

Zak: So what? Is composition just another thing you can’t control? You would stop if you could?

Tim: I have no way of knowing what I would do if I could. But the whole crises forces us to reconsider what it means to be an author and what moral duty is involved, if any. Like Aeneas, the author is tossed and thrown at the whims of the high sea. He has essentially no control over where he will end up, but he may have an intention.

Zak: So authorial intent is important?

Tim: I don’t know how important it is from the perspective of the reader, but the creative processes certainly presupposes some form of intention. One may defer causation to a plethora of external sources, but at some point, supposing that even in a small way the author is a liberal agent, he must exercise a certain degree of will in every action, including that of poetry.

Zak: Then he has an intention, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Tim: But it does.

Zak: How so?

Tim: It simply does—as simply and surly as Beethoven is not accountable for World War II. Why outcome should matter is what needs explaining. Intention, as our intuitions tell us, is the central subject of moral discourse; if an intention is good, it is Good without reference to anything outside itself.

Zak: Go on.

Tim: If we are honest, it’s easy to recognize that the best kind of goodwill is the kind that’s indifferent of the object to which it is referred. The Just man donates to charity not because he thinks his money will be useful, but only because he wishes to express that he cares. That willful act of expression stands for itself. It relies on no audience (rhetorical or otherwise) and even no actual beneficiary. The potential situation, which exists inside the mind of the man donating, suffices as context to give the action meaning.

Zak: But the actual outcome is irrelevant?

Tim: The Just man’s intentions, not his fortunes, are what we have in mind when we call him a “good” person.

Zak: Then reading consists in uncovering that first intention, that potential situation, which has been corrupted by external circumstances, such as social context and error in textual transmission.

Tim: Now you’re thinking like a philologist. And I thought I was the one living in Italy for too long.

Zak: So you accept this word, “corruption.”

Tim: I’m a fatalist, aren’t I?

Zak: Today you are. Tomorrow you’ll be something different. I meanwhile will keep on strategizing over my same chess game.

(continue reading)

On Intention

Zak: I went down to see the Peiraieus yesterday with Glaucon son of Ariston.

Tim: Who? You saw what?

Zak: Not much.  There were some rocks that used to be a building I think.  I guess punctuality is kind of important when it comes to attending sacred rites.

Tim: You…

Zak: Relatively speaking I wasn’t late.  I’ve seen what time your family shows up to church on Sundays.  Then again, not all sacred rituals are the same.

Tim: How’s that?

Zak: I mean… things would be different if I’d shown up late to your sister’s wedding…

Tim: You mean your wedding?

Zak: Do you know the legal ramifications of someone saying ‘I do’ with no one else at the alter?

Tim: Wait, are you referring to ancient Greece?

Zak: But you do find it curious then.

Tim: Curious?

Zak: The way context affects language.  The way ‘do’ doesn’t mean the same thing in the restroom as it would at an alter…

Tim: Oh, now I see where this is going.  Before—

Zak: —An unfortunate phrase.  At least in this context.  Anyway, my point is this: language is at once the omni-subsuming stage where all moral dramas take place and also the most relative, contextually-dependent instrument available to human use.  It couldn’t be more relative if it were a series of very expensive slits cut into a blank canvas.  Nothing could be more morally involved than the decision to say ‘I do’ at the alter, but saying it in the bathroom is only embarrassing.

Tim: Point taken.  So morality is relative?

Zak: Not at all!  Life is guided by a bus driver who’s drunk himself silly, but he knows exactly where he’s going.

Tim:  I’m confused.  Isn’t that a paradox?

Zak: Life’s full of paradoxes.

Tim: But you usually aren’t.  You’ve got a trick up your sleeve.

Zak: I do… I do… but like a good chess player, I’m saving it for later.

At this point, the conversation lingered as the participants took a moment to appreciate the exquisitely subtle use of foreshadow on the part of the author.

Tim: Okay, then riddle me this.  How does one define the Good in relation to linguistic arbitration?

Zak: Go on.

Tim: If we suppose that language consists in a hierarchical structure of paradigmatic opposition—

Zak: Wohoo, wohoo, wohoo.  Don’t get too excited.

Tim: I only mean from a semiotic—

Zak: Bless you!  Here’s a tissue.

Tim: Well what words can I use then?

Zak: Most of them.  I just happen to know you really wanted to say “semiotic” for no good reason.

Tim: I guess that’s fair.

Zak: As you were saying, language consists in a series of contrasting sounds.  (We like to call those sounds “words” where I come from.)

Tim: Fine.  And these different words have meaning in relation to other words.

Zak: Sure.  Like the word “loquacious” or “pedantic”…

Tim: Yeah, or “laconic” or “philistine” or “Podsnappery”…

Zak: And not to be overtly patronizing, but how exactly do all these words “have meaning in relation to other words”?

Tim: Well they contrast with them.

Zak: In the sense that, if I looked up “loquacious” in the dictionary, right beside your picture I’d see a string of other words: perhaps “using large, unnecessary vocabulary, long since rendered obsolete in the post-Hemingway age.  Antonyms: laconic.”

Tim: Exactly.  Words having meaning relative to other words.

Zak: And your question is?

Tim: My question is what constitutes the Good when it comes to linguistic decisions?  Which word does the Just man choose between those we’ve just cited?

Zak: Well it depends on context.

Tim: Walked right into that one.  But suppose the context is known.

Zak: But it isn’t known.  What’s that poetic mind of yours good for if you only use it to obsess about bow ties?

Tim: Fine… The context… Suppose you showed up late to some kind of sacred ritual…

Zak: What kind of ritual?

Tim: An ancient Roman sacrifice.

Zak: Delicious.  What’s on the table?

Tim: A two-year-old Heifer.

Zak: Nothing but the finest.  The gods must be huffing away on their lard fumes.

Tim: But you missed the whole thing.  The procession, the liver examination, the anal retentive… well… everything.

Zak: An inauspicious beginning.  So what’s the language decision?

Tim: The priest decides to cut you some slake in the form of a nice juicy rib—heifers have ribs, right?

Zak: It’s a good thing you’re a humanist.

Tim: Anyway, there’s an old lady there who’s just appalled at the whole thing.  She’s been complaining the whole time that you, the priest and the heifer were all going to tick off the divinities.

Zak: Naturally.

Tim: When everyone starts to dig in she’s all, “so how’s the meat, need some tardy sauce?” or something like that.  How does the Just man respond?

Zak: Well how is the meat?

Tim: What do you mean?  It’s fine, or whatever.

Zak: Spoken like a just man.

Tim: So the Just man just says “it’s fine?”  But why?  How does he make that decision?

Zak: I presume he makes it the same way one makes any moral decision.  He weighs all possible outcomes and chooses the one that’s most favorable.

Tim: So the one that benefits the most people to the greatest extent?

Zak: If you like, I suppose.

Tim: But how the heck is he supposed to know that?  What if saying the meat is fine will throw the crazy lady into a fit of righteous indignation in which she sets fire to the temple—

Zak: Stone doesn’t burn.  It’s a good thing you’re a humanist.

Tim: Or replying, “it’s terrible.  My appetite is spoiled by profound guilt.” would lead her to depression.

Zak: Then you better not say that.

Tim: But how are you supposed to know?

Zak: Tim.  Morality is just like chess.

Tim: I can’t play chess to save my life and you know it.

Zak: I’ll have to think about how the Just man would respond to that statement.  In the meantime, let me explain a few things to you.  Life is about anticipation.  The whole assumption that life has any meaning at all presupposes a certain human capacity to anticipate the future.  Chess is only interesting if you can anticipate your opponent’s moves to a certain extent.  In other word, the Just man would respond to the lady by making a carefully reasoned calculation of the densely interrelated chain of causality that would follow from each possible linguistic choice.

Tim:  And if he miscalculates?  Do you mean to suggest that all bad chess players are reprobates?

Zak: Not at all.

Tim: What then?  You’re on very thin ice.

Zak: We needn’t presume that morality as an experience and morality as an object are necessarily one in the same thing.  It’s perfectly conceivable that the criteria by which we may, at least in theory, objectively evaluate a moral action are independent of those by which we undergo moral experience.  The Just Man is someone who makes decisions that turn out to effect the greatest possible Good, but he may just as well do so without playing chess like a boss, or at least, without doing so presciently.  He might not consciously perform any kind of “felicific calculus.”

Tim: Bless you.

Zak: Frankly, how he comes to those decisions is none of our business.  It’s enough that he approaches it rationally and thoughtfully.

Tim: Hmm.

Zak: What’s that look on your face?

Tim: What?

Zak: Come on.  You couldn’t be smugger if you’d sold a solid grey canvas for a million dollars.

(continue reading)


Day 102: Wednesday

Good Morning Zak,

Zak this morning I find myself in the middle of a very busy season as well as of Umberto Eco’s Trattato di semiotica generale.  I’m not really sure which of the two deserves more of my attention.

What’s the difference between a gerund and a gerundive? …

The reason I bring up Eco is… well… how can I explain?

That!  That phenomenon is exactly the reason I’m bringing up Eco.  You know that feeling, where you have something to say, but you can’t seem to find the words to say it. How does that happen?  I mean, I use words to think, don’t I?  How could I have a thought for which there are no words?

… About four hours of excruciatingly dry explanation.

Or have you ever said a word over and over so many times that it seemed to lose it’s meaning?  Frog legs, frog legs, frog legs… frog legs…

We’ll there’s a word for that.  It’s called jamais vu…  The neglected cousin lurking in the shadow of déjà vu‘s limelight.

Anyway, my question is basically this: which comes first, thoughts or words?  As I put it a while back:

Which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

Or maybe the title of that post captured the question more concisely:

“What are words, even?!”

Well, it’s a difficult question… one that would take a lot of words to answer.  Faced with problems like these my first impulse is usually to read some ancient Greek:

“In the beginning was the word…” (John 1:1)

I guess that solves it.  Words come first.  That’s what that means right?

But what about every time you’ve tried to say something and the words just wouldn’t come?  What about that time you forgot the word for piano and accidentally called it a “pumpkin”?  Or when you had an entire conversation with someone about your pet cat before realizing that the words “your pride and joy” were probably intended to refer to your daughter instead?  Or what about that time you gazed longingly into someone’s eyes, and all the brokenness of the world seemed to somehow reconstruct itself for just a minute—but the only words that would come to you were a dry exposition on the meaning of the term fungibility in modern philosophical usage?

What… are those examples a little overly specific?

Anyway, one thing Umberto Eco brings to the table is his insistence on the general semiotic function of culture as a whole, not just of language.  Zak, I believe there may be some contributors on this blog who feel that language is a precondition of moral agency.  Eco says that (moral) intelligence can exist without language but semiotic function is the same thing as intelligence.

I’m not sure if I feel language has much to do with morality.  I do believe there’s something moral about expressive clarity… you know, that magical phraseological tension that happens only intermittently between the usual drunken babbling of life.  Every once in a while you pick up a book and encounter this mystical sort of translinguistic purity… something that seems to escape the limits of words and directly expresses l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

The so-called deconstructionist perspective that’s dominated literary theory since the later part of the last century seems to represent a breach of faith in that Amor which gives structure to the universe.  On the one hand there’s nothing wrong with our desire to move beyond the pedantry of a purely structuralist reading; it’s perfectly understandable.

But at the same time, there’s no escaping the fact that the very act of reading is predicated on structure.  The moment the receiver of a semiotic expression loses faith in the structural integrity of that message, he or she ceases to be a reader.  A reader is someone who intentionally seeks to reconstruct the coherent meaning of semiotic fragments.  Human contact simply cannot exist without that reconstructive process.

It’s a good thing that semiotics have been deconstructed.  I think Derrida’s school would be cool with me saying this: without deconstructing, how would we ever be able to reconstruct?

Frog legs,




What are words, even?

Day 96: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: What did the Python-programmer say after computing this expression?

list = [[2, 3], [5, 9], [2.359, 3.0], [92.1, 2], [3.0, 2.592]]

sum([anum[i] for anum in list for i in range(2)])

Stay tuned to find out.

I’ve spent the last couple days mostly just programming in Python, so if this post doesn’t make sense, you’ll know why.

If you ever want definitive proof that the Humanities and the Sciences are fundamentally incompatible, try writing a poem after a long computer-programming spree.  I just realized that the last three strophes I’ve written all inexplicably begin with the same word, ‘class’; the first line of each ends with a colon instead of a comma.

But seriously, computer science does take a lot of mental processing power, even if I shouldn’t be telling a U Chicago health-care professional that science and humanities are incompatible… I guess that’s not a very liberal-artsy thing of me to say.

But, Zak, I have a question: what’s so liberal about the liberal arts?  How do they have anything to do with politics?  And even if they do, why are they more blue than red?

For that matter, why is there such a thing as ‘light blue’ but not ‘light red’?  Is pink so distinctly feminine that it needs its own separate name?  What’s feminine about pink anyway?

On my side of the pond things are different.  Here in Italy there’s no such thing a ‘light blue’.  That’s called azzurro.  I’m teaching my English students the names of the colors.  They all insist on distinguishing between ‘blue’ and ‘light blue’ in English…  What I’m trying to tell you is that there are literally more colors in this country than in the US.

It’s a strange world.

Zak, I’m willing to concede that the way each culture partitions these various categories may be more or less arbitrary.  There may be nothing absolute about the divisions between red, pink, science, blue, humanity, liberalism, or Donald Trump…  But which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

In your last entry:

“Tim, I didn’t learn drinks could have calories until I went to college.”

I’m pretty sure drink-calories work just the opposite of colors.  There are more of those in the US.  Actually, between you me and the wall, I suspect that soda-pop may be one of the primary sources of the whole obesity problem in America…

Secondary sources may disagree…

That last sentence was just for the humanists, but the Python joke is dumb enough for all of us:

“That’s some sum.”

Until tomorrow,



Day 90: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I just picked up this book from the library.


I can explain… it was an honest mistake.  I went to the bookstore the other day to pick up a different book, but they didn’t have it.  Then I saw this monster.  Umberto Eco’s Writings on Medieval Thought.  It was too late.  I had seen it!  How could I resist now?


A sense of scale

I have to return it in a month, and the library has a strict “no backsies” policy—one of the many reasons I miss the old country.  *Sigh*  If it turns out to be half as good as I’m expecting I think I’ll have to go out and buy it.

Anyway, just starting to read this thing has got me thinking about a few things.  One of them is this: how intense does an experience need to be for us to enjoy it?

Thomas Aquinas was opposed to the use of instrumental music in Church.  He was afraid that the aesthetic rapture elicited by the music of instruments would be so overwhelming that it might prove an obstacle to focused worship.

Now Zak, I listen to a lot of medieval music… some of it with instruments… I don’t have a clue what this crazy old man was talking about.  I mean it’s very beautiful music.  That’s why I listen to it.  But distracting?  Enrapturing?

I guess what I’m saying is, what ever happened to the days when maximum euphoria consisted in a few notes plucked out on a lute?  Today I go to concerts, and people are adding laser shows, eight-channel surround-sound, live electronics…  Even the sounds themselves need extra spice.  We add noise components, odd timbres, aleatory…  It’s all great stuff.  But what happened to mere music?  You know, like pitches and rhythms… harmonies, if you wanna get fancy with it…

I have a flat-mate who watches TV on her computer while listening to music on her phone at the same time.  There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want to do.  I’m a contemporary composer, so I’m used to noise.

The Italians have a word, americanata: “an action or behavior characterized by an unsophisticated taste for grandeur and ostentation, which is usually attributed to the Americans.”

If I have any ascetic impulse in me, it’s there out of selfishness, not moralism.  I want to enjoy things as much as I can.  That’s the only reason I’d prefer less over more.  I’m a fan of synesthesia.  It’s excess that bothers me.

I’m writing a piano piece of just chords.  One chord about every two to five seconds.  In between there’s nothing.  Just resonance.  I think it would go nicely with wine and dark chocolate, in an intimate setting, with friends.

Until tomorrow,


A Peruvian Table

Day 86: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s become clear to me that my flatmate is in a pyramid scheme.  I heard her talking about it the other day.  This is something where the majority of income comes from recruiting other people to join.  Not a legitimate business… These things kind of creep me out sometimes.

So here’s one for you: do I have a moral obligation to reason with her about pyramid schemes?

Here’s another one for you: how do you pronounce Xlktsptetizd?

Now that one will keep you up at night.  Every now and then my composition Maestro asks me how to pronounce an American last-name.  I’ve tried to explain that ‘American’ last-names are of all different nationalities; unlike Italian last-names, they have no consistent pronunciation.

“How do you say this?” (points to a string of random letters. mostly consonants.)
“It depends where the name comes from.”

My first-name is enough to give the Italians a run for their money.  Timothy.  Not Team-o-tea.  I just recently started teaching English at an elementary school nearby.  The kids are hilarious.  The moment I step into the classroom they start up like a proper dawn chorus if each bird chanted Team-o-tea instead of its usual morning song.  I guess that’s one ‘English’ word they like.

The short i sound in Timothy doesn’t really exist in Italian.  This means it’s easy for them to confuse words like ship and sheep.  Also hit and heat, fit and feet, slip and sleep… as native speakers we don’t often think about how similar those words sound.  Actually, they almost become poetic when you string a bunch together:

I sit the sheep
in the ship on a seat.
It drifts away,
my mind slips off to sleep—
my feet fit snuggly
in their slippers…

Not all poetry makes sense.

Last week I went to a concert of songs based on Shakespeare poetry. Shakespeare makes me so nostalgic.  Sometimes too nostalgic.  Actually anything I studied a lot when I was younger can have that effect.  Do you ever get the feeling your life is written in blank verse?

Anyway.  Maybe I’ll empathize better with my flatmate now that I get where she’s coming from.  Pyramid schemes are build on dominance.  The dominance of people who join early over those who join later.  Living in a Nietzschean universe like that, I can almost see why you might stick two thick master locks on your cereal cupboard.

Sometimes you gotta have a sense of humor about things.  I told my Maestro I’m starting to teach English to little children.  He nearly rolled on the floor laughing:

“What, they’ll ask you, how do you say tavola.  ‘It depends where the table comes from.  If it’s a Peruvian table, you say tahh-b-lay.’”

So yeah…

Until tomorrow,