Word Watch: Paleography


Yep, it sounds like dinosaurs or a diet fad but it’s my new word this week: Paleography.

n. The study and scholarly interpretation of earlier, especially ancient, writing and forms of writing. (Thanks, Wordnik!)

I first encountered it here:

“Extensively and meticulously reworked, the texts were extremely difficult to decipher, but the happy result is that Kafka – almost against his own will – soon became universally recognised as one of the masters of literary modernism. Brod’s editorial decisions have been much disputed, but the fundamental problem is rooted in something deeper than paleography”

Rupert Christiansen, Kafka’s Last Trial: the strange story of the battle for his manuscripts

Difficult to decipher texts are a forté of mine. My literary estate will surely be a labyrinthine adventure for whoever gets to execute it (a phrase that demands to be followed by “Après nous, le deluge!”). That’s saying nothing of the hordes of academics sure to flock to my literary laying place to pick my bones or at least pick a bone with some error, omission, or otherwise inscrutable reference (like so many thorns on the primrose path). My handwriting will probably prove the real issue.

I direct my future paleographologists to my musings on notebooks and the keeping of them here, which will hopefully provide some kind of skeleton key. The Waste Books of Lichtenberg, Joan Didion’s perennial On Keeping a Notebook, Lost Lines and Posterity). To help organize my thoughts in the future, I might eventually venture into bullet journaling, but that sounds like something William S. Burroughs did in his off hours.

Saint Drogo, Patron Saint of Coffee Houses. And Sheep.

Saint Drogo

Like many of my godless generation, I know more about Marvel superheroes than I do about saints. Still, I was surprised that I had never heard of Saint Drogo — the patron saint of coffee houses — until falling into a fateful Wikipedia wormhole. Cafes and coffee houses, after all, are the proverbial third place where my ilk of creative crusader congregates. Where has Drogo been and why isn’t there a Drogo blend at Starbucks?

I’ll hazard a guess: Besides being the patron saint of coffee houses (which is odd since coffee didn’t arrive in his native France until the 16th century — 500 years after his death), Drogo is also the patron saint of sheep. This makes sense since he was a shepherd. He also lived in a cell appended to a church wall so the villagers wouldn’t have to look at him after a disease disfigured him whilst pilgrimaging across Europe. With sheep. You know what kind of medieval disease can disfigure you? Syphilis. You know where this is going?

Since living a life of “heroic virtue” is a requirement of sainthood, I’d venture that the Church overlooked this in light of his alleged miracle — an ability to bilocate — meaning, he could be in two places at the same time. Witnesses claimed to see him in church when other witnesses simultaneously saw him with his sheep.

This is a superpower more Marvel than Catholic, IMHO, or at least some order of quantum chicanery on par with superposition. But there’s more to ponder for the bilocation-curious per a back issue of Discover Magazine:

“About 80 years ago, scientists discovered that it is possible to be in two locations at the same time—at least for an atom or a subatomic particle, such as an electron. For such tiny objects, the world is governed by a madhouse set of physical laws known as quantum mechanics. At that size range, every bit of matter and energy exists in a state of blurry flux, allowing it to occupy not just two locations but an infinite number of them simultaneously.”

Tim Folger, Discover Magazine

So there. Maybe Drogo existed in a state of blurry flux (a.ka. over-caffienated, hence the coffee angle?) Somehow, he’s not the patron saint of physics but he is recognized as the Pythonesque saint of the “those whom others find repulsive.” And that’s not too baaaaad.

So Long, And Thanks for All the Memes.


Reclaiming My Digital Voice.

I’ve been recovering from a recent bout of digital marketing. I don’t want to go into where or how I got it, just that it’s left me itchy in that way that creative types get because we needed the money. This sounds more venereal than intended, but then, courting a certain virality was part of the gig. The scratch for this itch? Some old school Internetting. Hence, I’m doubling down on blogs, emails, and the occasional audio missive that’s infrequent enough not to be confused with an actual podcast. And I’m doing it at DaedalusHowell.com. Welcome to the party.

I’m also hastening an end to my tenuous relationship with social media. I ceded my Twitter account to Culture Dept., the arts business of which I’m a partner. I’m contemplating further social media decouplings. Snapchat? Don’t get it, don’t care. Instagram? Meh. How ’bout I just send you postcards from Lumaville instead? Surely, there’s some leftover stock from the Petaluma Postcard Project?


I long ago converted my Facebook profile into a “page,” which is the social media equivalent of Kal-El giving up his superpowers in Superman II — sure, you can become mortal but then you can’t really do anything and you can’t get your powers back unless you find that magic glow stick (and that, my friends, was last seen at a SOMA warehouse in the 90s).

Is that you, magic glow stick?

Thereafter, Facebook has merely served me as a “distribution vector,” as “infrequent electronic letter”-writer Craig Mod aptly describes his similar use of social media. Perhaps I’ll hire a Russian bot to post for me rather than going all in on #deletefacebook, which requires an AI to figure out how to do anyway.

This is the general thinking: If I’m going to scream into a hole on the Internet, I should own it and my personal data with it. That way, I can more effectively market to myself and turn a vicious circle of posting to ZERO readers into a virtuous cycle of affirming the work of Number Fucking ONE.

Also — I’m just gonna say no to SEO. Now Google can’t find me and stalk me with ads for every search term I’ve ever entered. I recently dropped the E on Moleskine and have been pursued by blister protection products since.

And no more digital sharecropping for the likes of @Jack and Zuck and probably Vladimir. I could never muster the algorithmic mojo to viably surface on their platforms anyway. In this infowar, I’m not interested in being a hostage. So, I’m going to tend my own online Victory Garden and make it fertile ground — even if that means it’s only full of my own manure.

On Anthony Burgess and Inspiration: The Me in The Metropolis Movie

Metropolis Movie

Artists can absorb influences so deeply, it can be renewing — if not startling — when we discover traces of them in our later, “mature” work. By traces, I don’t mean George Harrison-style cryptomnesia when you suddenly have to lawyer-up thanks to a couple of misappropriated “doo langs.” No, I mean the subtle nods or oblique homages to the works that inspired us and the whose who made it. We may have forgotten some of these instances of inspiration then trip over like psychic land mines when looking over one’s own oeuvre.

I credit my newfound awareness of this potentiality to Anthony Burgess, whose previously unpublished essay, A Movie That Changed My Life by Anthony Burgess, recently appeared in the Guardian. It got me thinking about the quiet DNA of influence. Spoiler alert — for Burgess, it was Fritz Lang’s expressionistic and dystopian Metropolis that prefigured ideas that later became the author’s A Clockwork Orange and a quasi-sequel to an Orwell classic cheekily titled 1985. The essay brought to mind my own transformative relationship with the expressionistic genius of Fritz Lang.

The first images of Metropolis I laid eyes on were in what I’m assuming was 1979’s The Art of Star Wars by Carol Titleman, which I poured over as a seven-year-old. There was a poster-worthy image of Metropolisrobot revealed as the spiritual ancestor of the nebbishy C-3P0 as conceptualized by artist Ralph McQuarrie.

Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art for C-3PO is a nod to Fritz Lang’s activist robot.

I wouldn’t see the film until five years later when it came to the Plaza Theatre in Petaluma, California. The Plaza was a revival house in the heart of town, responsible for birthing many a local cineaste (and the inspiration for the Lumiere in The Late Projectionist). But this was 1984, so the version of the film making the rounds wasn’t the original silent, black and white, Fritz Lang original but rather a sort of extended found-footage, color-tinted, music video version tailor-made for the MTV generation.

We can thank or blame Giorgio Moroder for this particular cut. 

For context, Moroder is “the founder of disco and an electronic music trailblazer” (according to his bio). An Italian-born producer and film composer, Moroder is responsible for scores for films including Scarface and Midnight Express, and soundtrack singles like Top Gun‘s “Take My Breath Away” and Blondie’s “Call Me” in American Gigolo. This is just conjecture but it seems Moroder had the notion to build a soundtrack and needed a movie upon which to pin it. In fact, Moroder outbid David Bowie for the rights for Metropolis (we can cry about that later). He then reduced the film’s running time (or butchered depending on your sense of authorial sanctity) and added this New Wave-ish soundtrack:

Admittedly, I remember being quite taken by Bonnie Tyler’s “Here She Comes,” with all its chordal echoes of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” and heavy rotation on MTV as a video culled from Moroder’s cut.

So, yeah, I didn’t (at least first) see the version of Metropolis that so inspired Burgess but I was inspired nonetheless. Perhaps the dilution of the film’s potency has resulted in the comparatively weaker sauce that is my own oeuvre. But, hey, Tony’s dead, so I have time to catch up. You do too — you can start with Moroder’s edition on YouTube:

Film is a visual medium, and, if the task of literature is to stud the brain with quotations, cinema’s job is to cram it with images which transcend storyline and feed the need for myth. — Anthony Burgess

Consider it fed, Mr. Burgess.

To James Joyce: A Bloomsday Apology


It’s Bloomsday. Sigh. Before I get into my annual apology to James Joyce for having yet to complete reading his modernist masterwork, Ulysses, consider this term I learned from a recent New York Times Magazine article on (missing?) Joyce scholar John Kidd: horror vacui — the “fear of the void.”

The article’s author Jack Hitt, uses it in reference to the “compulsion to fill an existential emptiness” as has been recognized in the crowded canvasses of some folk art. Hitt also extends the term to the completist nature of some Joyceans to know and understand every allusion and nuance of a work Joyce himself said is crammed with “…so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” Perhaps this was Joyce’s “fuck you” to academia or an attempt at a kind of critical immortality. Or perhaps the work is symptomatic of the author’s own horror vacui — a neurotic exercise in worldbuilding akin to losing whole rooms of one’s home to the bacteria of a model train set. Why this need to rebuild the world? Is it that old saw about getting right in art that which we can’t in life? Is everything that wrong?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Horror vacui is what compels fans of Star Wars and the Marvel to know every iota about Jedis and Infinity Stones and the same anxiety accounts for those with an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical babble and base runs. I similarly had the bug one meaningless adolescent summer when I took a deep-dive into the comparatively shallow waters of The Beats. And like users who become pushers to feed their own habits, I now find myself packing my own work with enigmas and puzzles and inside jokes, not just to fill an apparent existential void but the more harrowing one of the blank screen. (Yesterday, while we were editing our film Pill Head, I changed the graphic of a phone number to suggest the title of a long-lost play I co-wrote. What’s wrong with me?)

So, this is what thou hath wrought, James Joyce. Anyway, as promised:

J.J. –

It being Bloomsday and all, I just wanted to apologize for not having finished reading Ulysses. Again. I know, I know, this is totally ridiculous, not least of which because my own mother named me for one of your major characters (you will be happy to know that I have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so part of my pseudo-Greco ass is covered).

Back in 2004, during the Bloomsday centenary, I bought a copy of Ulysses and hunkered down in fake Irish pub called Finn McCool’s somewhere in Santa Monica. This was sad. What was sadder was my intention to drink Guinness until I finished the damn book. Unfortunately, my page to pint ratio turned out to be about one to one. You’re as dense a writer as I’m a slow reader who also happens to be a quick drinker. This is what I remember: “Stately plump mulligan,” a tower, a shaving bowl and having to return the next day for my credit card.

That particular copy of Ulysses ended up on its own Bloomsday adventure, touring the concrete jungle of greater Los Angeles from the back of the cab where I left it. Fortunately, I’ve since acquired two additional unread copies of Ulysses, so I promise to you, Jimmy, I’ll read at least one. Someday. I will. Yes, yes I said yes I will Yes.

And, yes, yes, I skipped to the last page…