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by Richard Nilsen

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When I was so young that I was just entering the tunnel of adolescence, I sent a joke into the Reader’s Digest. The Digest was the primary reading material in our house, and they had a regular feature with funny definitions of words. Mine was a definition for “euphemism,” which I said was “synonym and sugar.”
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I never heard back from the august publishers. Perhaps they rejected me out of hand, perhaps they never got my letter, or perhaps they just smelled the anti-acne cream on the paper.
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Even at that age, I knew that I had an abnormal interest in the English language, and language in general. From the second grade onward, when we had weekly lists of vocabulary words to memorize and use in sentences, I habitually attempted to use all 10 words in a single sentence, just to be a smartass.
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So, it is hardly surprising that eventually, I became a writer. And a smartass — at the newspaper where I earned my crust, I enjoyed making up words to sneak past the editors. In one six month period, I made a game of inventing some word in each and every story I submitted, and to my surprise, and great pleasure, got them all through the checkpoints and safeguards. I never knew whether the editors assumed the words must be real, or if they just thought, well, that’s Nilsen, whatcha gonna do?
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But, back to synonyms. Part of the captivating magic of words for me was always their various halos, or nimbuses of meaning. No word stands alone, naked and singular, but rather, each is a spinning molecule composed of a cluster of atoms, each a different connotation, so that I became early convinced that there really is no such thing in the English language as a synonym. Not really.
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English is a promiscuous language. It lets anyone have its way, and it permits all kinds of immigrants take up residence. A fluent or native speaker of Spanish has a vocabulary estimated at about 10,000 words while the Oxford English dictionary contains 228,132 words either defined or as subentries. That does include a good number of words no longer in current usage (words I often like to attempt to resuscitate), but even so, there are about 170,000 of the little squiggles that are commonly in use, although no one uses all of them. The average is 10,000 words in an ordinary person’s word-hoard (the Old-English kenning for vocabulary).
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Shakespeare, admittedly an outlier, had a personal vocabulary of about 66,000 words. Some of those, he seems to have coined himself.
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The reason is that so many of our words have companions from Germanic and Romance languages, so, we have hogs, pigs, pork, or cows, steers and beef. To be called hoggish is different from being called swinish or piggish or porcine. Shades of meaning.
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Each word traces its family history to another region of the globe, including China (ketchup), India (pajamas, or if you are British, pyjamas), Aztec Mexico (tomato), Africa (okra) or the Middle East (candy).
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And so, there are many words that have overlapping meanings. But a sensitive ear ferrets out the subtle differences. Take “flammable” and “inflammable.” On the surface, they seem like they should be antonyms, but they mean the same thing. Or almost.
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“Flammable” implies burnable while “inflammable” implies something able to be set on fire. A subtle difference, but there, nonetheless.
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“Quiet” is a good thing in the bustle of a city, but when things go “silent,” you should start worrying.
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A “writer” sends letters or publishes in a newspaper; and “author” produces books.
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Each synonym has a slightly different shade of meaning, and a good writer (or author) used those differences to his or her advantage. It is an issue of awareness.
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“Sad” and “unhappy” are interesting, because “unhappy” is both more ephemeral than “sad” — if you are “unhappy” about an outcome, you aren’t necessarily feeling “sad” and get over it quickly— but also permanent — an “unhappy” marriage is longer lasting than a sad mood.
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So wrapped up in language am I that I have imagined languages other than those actually spoken. I once invented a language — not the language itself, not like a secret “twin language,” but rather the grammar and rules of an imaginary language spoken by imaginary peoples.
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It helps me think about the possibilities and limits of language.
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The language was spoken by a tribal group on an island in the Indian Ocean, recognizable to anyone who watched old movies on TV. So, there is a joke in the description. See if you get it.
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The story is presented in the form of a fictional “translator’s note” for a fictional book about this fictional island, which bears the name which is a synonym of “cranium.”
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To wit:
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Translator’s Note
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All the translations in this book are by the author, save only those in passages by books cited in the bibliography.
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A few notes about the difficulty of translating the native language of the Kandeni Islands might be in order. Those tiny islands in the Indian Ocean (approximately 2 degrees South and 90 degrees East), and their primary island, Kandei, were undiscovered until 1933 (vide Cooper and Schoedsack, 1933), and so remote are they that their language and customs seemingly grew in isolation for centuries, if not millennia. A few relics in their language suggest they had contact with cultures in the South Andaman Sea in earlier eras, perhaps related to the extinct Jangil peoples, but in the main, their language is unique.
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By far, the primary difficulty in their language is the fact that it has only two verbs, which might best be described as the verb to be and the verb to do, one active, one passive. Every usage is intelligible only in context. The language has nouns with cases, adjectives that mirror those cases and a few prepositions and a few vestigial conjunctions. There are no articles.
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This bifurcation of verb is essential to their organization of the world. Things — whatever they are — either be or do. They exist as essences or they exist as agents. Every act is merely a morph of the simple act of doing. Running, speaking, sleeping, eating — they are all seen as variants of a single act.
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For the elders who spoke to me, this is taken as obvious: Their mythology (see Chapter 3) revolves around the dichotomy of being and doing, and their gods, if you can call them that (they may also be seen as ancestors), fall into two categories, the “be-ers” and the “do-ers.” These supernatural beings (I use our terminology — they do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural) are at odds, if not at war (the stories vary from family to family).
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On first approach, it may appear that the language is simple to the point of being rudimentary, but in fact, with these few elements, it has grown into a language of immense complexity, requiring of its speaker — and listener — not only great subtlety but awareness of its context. The same sentence in the morning may mean something different after the sun begins its descent.
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As one might expect, that although there are only two verbs, there are many nouns. The Kandeian people have words for the things of their world, but not static words. A certain plant, for instance, will have a different noun for its seedling, for its fruiting or for its use by native animals. Linguistically, they are different things, even if our Linnean system sees them as merely phases of the same plant. This is true as it is for us, for instance, who think of a boy as different from a man, a puppy as different from a dog. For them, the manioc plant is a different plant before it grows a sufficient tuber. For us, these distinctions are vestigial, for them, they are applied to almost everything in their ecosystem.
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The prepositions come in five varieties, describing being above something, under something, around something or in something and finally away from something. There is no before or after: That is expressed by saying something like “I here (to be), he here (to be), and the listener infers from context that the one happened before the other.
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Adjectives and adverbs are undifferentiated; they are universal modifiers and no distinction is made between a fast runner and running fast (or in the language “active verb fast.”
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A few examples might help.
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A standard statement might include first a subject, like the personal pronoun, “I,” followed by the object of the sentence followed by one of the two verbs. If you were to express a simple idea, such as “I throw the ball,” the sentence would be constructed as “I ball (active verb).” Or “I ball do.” The “I” is in the nominative case, the “ball” in the objective. The “do” or “act” is understood as something you do with the ball — which in context would most likely be understood as “throw.” The speaker might mimic the act of throwing, but this is not necessary. If you needed to express something else, such as “I sat on the ball,” you would have to express this with not only the sentence, but with gesture. “I ball (do)” and a short squatting gesture. Why you might want to sit on a ball, I don’t know.
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The other verb expresses both condition and essence — both the concepts that in Spanish are divided by “ser” and “estar.” To say “I am here,” the sentence would be built as “I here (to be).” “Here” is in the locative case. Other places would likewise be in the locative. “I river (to be).” There is no tense expressed. Again, tense is implied by context or by extension: “I river yesterday (to be).”
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Naturally, such a language can only be meaningful in a face-to-face encounter. The many gestural inflections cannot be captured in print or over a telephone. Neither of which, I hardly need to say, the Kandeian peoples do not have.
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When they were discovered by a passing tramp steamer in 1933, it is estimated there were perhaps 400 Kandeian speakers on the island. In the intervening time that number has dropped precipitously; there are now estimated to be under a hundred left, although a precise census has never been taken, in part because the Kandeians resist outside visitors, and in part because the island is so wild and overgrown, cross-country travel is extremely hazardous (ibid, Cooper and Schoedsack).
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I spent two years on the island in the late 1980s, studying the language and customs. I spoke with several family leaders — a position gained not by force or vote, but by assent — and they told me their stories and the stories of their ancestors. This raises another distinct quality of their language. When discussing everyday events, they speak in an ordinary pitch and volume, as you or I might. But when relating myth, they speak in a high pitch and with little inflection. They can revert back and forth with seemingly no difficulty as they interweave the mythic with the quotidian.
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This way of speaking also functions as a kind of subjunctive mood, as it is also used to express things that might not be, or might occur in the future. So, for the Kandeian, linguistically at least, the past — other than a personal past — and the future are equally mythic. In the middle, there is the lifetime remembrance of the speaker, which is taken as indicative rather than subjunctive; all else is relegated to myth, or a time that may have been or might become.
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The problems of rendering such a language in English should be manifest. When I translate the words of Ruthentay, leader of his family, I must interpret his meaning into English rather than literally translate. Certainly this is the case when translating from any language to another; the problems of turning Tolstoy into readable English is well known. But with the Kandeian Islander, this is raised to an exponential degree. I cannot just give the words Ruthentay speaks, but must render them as if they had been spoken in English. This distorts them in ways that break my heart, but it cannot be otherwise.
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In those cases where no English equivalent exists, as for certain food items of the Kandeian diet, I must use transliterations of the native words. I am sorry if this causes confusion but again, there seems no way around it.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

by Richard Nilsen

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“Constantinople is not Constantinople anymore…”
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That’s how the song goes. “Constantinople is now Istanbul…” etc. etc. for the rest of the tune. The change in name happened officially in 1926, although it took until the 1950s before the switch made it down to the level of a pop tune.
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This is hardly the first time that the city on the Bosphorus has switched identities. If we look in the rearview mirror, the city has been named Stamboul, Istanbul, Constantinople, Islambol, Constantinople (again), Byzantium, Nova Roma, Augustina Antonina, Byzantium (again) and, according to Pliny the Elder, was first founded as the city of Lygos by Thracian immigrants in 13th or 11th century B.C.E.
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Besides the official names, there are the names the city was known by in other languages and cultures. For instance, the Vikings called it Miklagarth or “Big Wall.” It is Tsargrad (or “Caesar City”)  in old Slavic languages (and remains so in Bulgarian). To the Persians, it was Takht-e Rum, or “Throne of the Romans.” In Medieval Spain, it was Kostandina. And in old Hebrew, it was Kushta.
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During the Ming Dynasty in China, the city was Lumi, but in the Qing Dynasty it was Wulumu, or alternately, Gongsidangdinebole. That’s a mouthful. In modern Pinyin Chinese, it is Yisitanbao, in which you can hear the echo of “Istanbul.”
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Ukraine wheat and flag

I bring this up, oddly, because Ukraine is so much in the news. When I was learning geography in grade school (another outdated name), it was “the Ukraine,” very much parallel to “the Argentine,” or “the Midwest.” A few years ago, the definite article was officially sent packing.
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The issue was born of history. In the 12th century, the city of Kiev dominated the trade routes from northern Europe to Constantinople and the region developed into a quasi-nation called the Kievan Rus. Later, the city of Moscow, to the north, grew stronger and became dominant.
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And so, there were two Russias and the larger, ruled by Moscow, acquired the name “Russia,” and the lesser became known as “Little Russia,” or Malaya Rossiya, or, for short, Mala Rus.
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(Excuse this oversimplification of history. This is not even the Cliff Notes version of Russian and Ukrainian history and leaves out a whole lot, but I hope gives the gist of what goes on with the naming of the spot on the globe. I have not even begun to mention the Tatars.)
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To continue: With Muscovite Russia taking over, what was called Little Russia was seen as a kind of borderland between Russia and Poland. A “buffer zone.” Russia has always been obsessed with buffer zones. By the most commonly accepted etymology, “Ukraine” means “borderland.” And hence, the definite article. The Ukraine: The Borderland.
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As a digression — Piotr Illich Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies. The three final ones are huge, grand statements and a bulwark of the symphonic repertoire. The first three are lesser works. His second symphony is known as the “Little Russian” symphony. Many people have assumed it was a smaller symphony that was somehow Russian. But it is named for the composer’s use of Ukrainian folk tunes in the music. Hence: “Little Russian.”
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Back to the story. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, there was a backlash against any idea that their nation was the little brother and popular sentiment abhorred the older idea of Little Russia. They resented the popular image that they were the hicks and hillbillies of the Steppes. And they equally it hurt their national pride that they were merely a borderland between other, more important powers.
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The country also has a more recent beef with their former overlords. Through the first half of the 20th century, Ukraine was devastated by Soviet    policy. In the 1930s, untold millions were starved to death by Stalin. Later, untold millions were killed by Hitler. This sorry story is recounted brilliantly in Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands. Grim but important reading.
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And so, once they were independent, in 1991, they asked the world to drop the article in their name, and on Dec. 3 of that year, the Associated Press officially changed the style and asked newspapers to use “Ukraine” and no longer “the Ukraine.”
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I remember when that happened. I was working at The Arizona Republic; it was a small footnote to that year. The AP frequently updates its stylebook, but the loss of the “the” struck me at the time as kind of ugly. Linguistically, I liked the distinction the nation had as an outlier. I have always liked language anomalies.
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Sorry. I keep getting distracted. So, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Russian-ish troops into eastern Ukraine, the leader of the separatist movement and head of the self-proclaimed state of Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Sakharchenko, proposed renaming his portion of the Ukraine as Malarus, or “Little Russia,” to acknowledge his allegiance to the idea of a single grand Rus. The idea went nowhere; even the Russian-leaning populace wanted to distance themselves from the old idea of “little brother.”
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We have a habit, probably hard-wired into our evolution, of thinking of the world as static, as a given. We may change, we may age, we may marry and divorce, but the land we live on is permanent. It is not.
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Not only are nations and borders constantly shifting, but rivers change course, mountains lose half their height overnight (Mt. St. Helens or  Vesuvius). You can find on the internet several YouTube animations demonstrating the wiggling, shifting borders of nations over the past thousand years. Poland notoriously rolls around like mercury on a plate. Even after World War II, the whole of Poland lifted up its skirts and moved 200 miles to the west.
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Western Europe 1300-1900

But for our purpose here, it is the names of places that I want to point out. They change constantly. Either because the old name has demeaning connotations, or because of political change, or the splitting up of ethnic portions of a once-single nation, or the rising linguistic influence of a powerful imperialist neighbor.
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So, not only has the Ukraine become Ukraine, but Peking has become Beijing; Bombay is now Mumbai; Upper Volta became Burkina Faso. Cambodia turned to Kampuchea, but then went back. Burma tried on Myanmar and is now loosening up to be Burma again. But Rangoon is pretty secure as Yangon.
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As political influence shifts, names come in and out of circulation. Where Germany and Poland contend, you sometimes have both names, such as Danzig and Gdansk, Stetin and Szczecin, or Auschwitz and Oswiecim.
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Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Mapmakers must go crazy trying to keep up.
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Even in Ukraine, Kiev is changing to Kyiv.
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Persia became Iran in 1935; the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd became Saudi Arabia in 1932; Abyssinia turned into Ethiopia in 1941; Siam became Thailand in 1949.
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One of my favorites — In 1384, the Duchy of Brabant became Burgundian Netherlands; a century later, it became Habsburg Netherlands. Give another hundred years and it became Spanish Netherlands. In 1713, it became Austrian Netherlands followed in 1815 as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, only to turn a few years later into what we now know as Belgium. There is a bubbling separatist movement that may turn the whole thing back into two countries: Wallonia and Brabant, bringing full circle.
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Utah was once called Deseret. Kolkata was once Calcutta. St. Petersburg became Petrograd became Leningrad became St. Petersburg once again.
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I don’t think even Ovid could have kept up with all the shifting identities.
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Bechuanaland is Botswana; Basutoland is Lesotho; Ceylon is Sri Lanka; British Honduras is Belize; Dahomey is Benin; Madras is Tamil Nadu; Londonderry is Derry. Russia itself went through a cataclysmic shirt to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to the Russian Federation and back to good ol’ Russia.
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Joseph Stalin kept the commissars humming. The city of Tsaritsyn was renamed in his honor as Stalingrad. But genocidal dictators come and go, and now the city is Volgograd. Dushanbe in Tajikistan was changed to Stalinabad in 1929 to honor Uncle Joe, and was de-Stalinized later, returning it to Dushanbe. Of course, the man history knows as Stalin wasn’t born that way; he was originally Iosep Besarionis dze Jughashvili.
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I could go on listing name changes. Illyricum in the Roman Empire was Yugoslavia during the Cold War and has since shattered into various entities, forming and reforming now into Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. Give it time and the region will certainly transform again.
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The point of all this is that the world is dynamic. Our sense of it is static, but the reality is constantly shifting. When I hear politicians rail on about national sovereignty or diplomatic recognition for rogue states, I turn my head and blush for them. It is all just snakes in a bucket, over time, wriggling and writhing. New York was once New Amsterdam; Oslo used to be Christiania; Guangdong was first known to us as Canton.
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Nothing stays the same. It is always changing. Tempus fugit. Everything fugit.
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Even Regina, Saskatchewan was once a town named Pile of Bones.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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Recently, filmmaker Martin Scorsese caused a bit of a kerfuffle by suggesting that perhaps superhero movies weren’t, strictly speaking, cinema. The backlash from the fanboy hordes was sharp, angry and, in simple terms, the equivalent of “OK, boomer.”
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He is behind the times, they say. He is trapped in a past and needs to get with the program.
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An old friend and former colleague of mine at the newspaper where I used to work defended Scorsese with a quote from something I wrote years ago. I hadn’t even remembered it. But it is to the point.
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I made a distinction that should be kept in mind: “Movies are about story; film is about how the story is told; and cinema is about what the story means.”
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Most audiences go to the theater for the story — nothing wrong with that, some of the best movies ever are all about story. I would hate to give up myThin Man movies, or my Claude Chabrol thrillers. Story is the foundation of film.
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When crotchety director Sam Fuller was asked what makes a good movie, he said, chomping his cigar, “A story.” And when pressed for what makes a good story, he said, “A story.” You can’t get any clearer than that.
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But in the past several decades, after a crowd of young directors have gone through film school, many films have become instead about how they are told. Take, for instance, Pulp Fiction, which shuffles several interrelated stories and proves Jean-Luc Godard’s famous dictum: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
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Or Christopher Nolan’s Memento, in which moves forward and backward in time simultaneously. Or The Blair Witch Project, which creates professionally the look of amateur film. Or 2014’s  Birdman, by Alejandro Iñárritu, which is filmed with the appearance of no editing.
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If you go to film school, you want to try out the toys.
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It may seem as if this tendency is new in Hollywood, but the fact is, most Alfred Hitchcock films are primarily about how they are made. He often set himself filmmaking problems and had a barrel of fun solving them, as when he shot an entire film in a lifeboat at sea, or in Rear Window, where everything is seen from a single room, or even Psycho, where he does the unthinkable and kills off his main character halfway through the film.
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He even anticipated Birdman (and the 2002 Russian Ark) by making Rope in 1948, which presents itself as one long single take. Hitchcock reveled in filmmaking for its own sake.
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In North By Northwest, he has a famous sequence in which Cary Grant is chased through a cornfield by a cropdusting plane. The scene makes no actual sense, and doesn’t logically fit into the story (if the bad guys wanted to kill him, there are lots easier ways to do it than to buzz him with a biplane). But Hitch wanted to shoot it and it is one of the most cinematic in the movie.
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But the type of film Scorsese was referring to is what I label “cinema,” that is, film used to explore questions of existence, to find meaning — or lack of — in life. The Marvel and DC movies he targeted have very little to do with real life; they are utter fantasy. The characters don’t do what actual humans might do; the plots focus on scenarios that are impossible by the laws of physics; and most awful: The world is divided into good guys and villains. Worse: super-villains, that odd concatenation of evil, paranoia and comic books, usually mixed with absurd technology (I’m talking about you, Doc Ock and Doctor No).
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Hannah Arendt, who wrote about the banality of evil, would have nothing to say about this parallel universe.
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Some movies, however, aim to explore the conditions of being human, films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Federico Felllini’s La Dolce Vita, or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Colors trilogy or Decalog.
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These films have sometimes been called “art films,” although to many, that implies unwatchability and pretension. But, like great books or classic music, rather it means not settling for the simple and conventional. To those of us who love such films, they are a joy and pleasure and spark the recognition that yes, this is the real world I know.
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These are films that hit deeply at what it all means, the great questions of life, the universe and everything. Roshomon, The Bicycle Thief, Exterminating Angel, The 400 Blows, Raging Bull.
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But I don’t mean to imply that films are simply one type or the other. An art film can have a story, and a crowd-pleaser at the multiplex can be told in innovative ways. In fact, almost all film dips into each well to one depth or another.
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Consider Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which is a gripping story, told in unconventional ways that is also a deep dive into meaning of psychology, politics, power, love, and childhood. It does all three better than most films. And, as Pauline Kael famously said, it is “more fun than any other great movie.”
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Unless that movie is Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, which has at its core the infinite wisdom of the truth: “Everybody has their reasons.”
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But it wasn’t movies I was meaning to talk about. Really, I meant to notice that this tripartite division is applicable to the other arts as well. In fact, it is a good way to consider them, so you aren’t asking the wrong questions when looking, hearing or watching something.
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A painting of a vase of flowers can be just a painting of a vase of flowers. It’s pretty enough. Watercolor societies all over regularly hold member exhibitions filled with very pretty flowers, very well painted, but their reason for existence is to be pretty, to decorate a home.
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But when Picasso paints a vase of flowers, the point is the way he paints them, whether as a Cubist image, or an abstract, or even, at times, a threatening monstrous vase of potential Audreys from a little shop of horrors. His paintings are beautiful, but never pretty.
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Consider, then, the frequent trope of 17th century Dutch flower paintings, where an utterly gorgeous bouquet is pictured with a few withered blossoms and several insects or snails ready to devour them. Sometimes, if the message isn’t clear enough, a human skull will be placed next to the vase as a memento mori. Vanitas, vanitas; omnia vanitas. Such paintings remind us of the shortness of life and the futility of ambition.
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Again, it doesn’t mean that the Dutch flowers aren’t beautiful; they are. But there is another layer of meaning behind them. They aren’t just a pretty face.
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Or take poetry. A poem may be simply an attractive image or thought. It may tell a story in verse, or illustrate a popular truism. But then there are poems that are just about the way they are written: The tricky layout of an e.e. cummings or the anagram poetry of George Herbert, or the odd-length lines of a Dylan Thomas drawing a diamond on the page.
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A villanelle or a sonnet or even a haiku is always in part about how it is written, as if it were a puzzle that the poet has carefully crafted for you. Even a limerick.
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Not every poem is an earthshaking revelation. But there is always a Paradise Lost or an Intimations Ode to remind us that the world is larger, more meaningful and reflect our part in it.
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A novel may be simply a story, the way Stephen King writes them, direct and with clear structure. Or they may be as James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the manner of its writing is central. Or, like Dostoevsky, it may tackle the big issues of life.
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Again, none of these does just the one thing, but each clearly emphasizes a different aspect. I suppose you could map it all out with a pie chart for each.
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Even in music, there are simple tunes (“chunes” as William Yeats used to call them). They can be pop songs, or dinner cassations by Mozart, but their only aim is to please.
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Then there is music that is about how it is written, which ranges from Haydn’s clever play with sonata form all the way to the dodecaphonic assemblages of Milton Babbitt, which have little expressive content and are entirely about their own construction.
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But swing the whole other way and you have Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Third, music that strives to, in Mahler’s formulation, “be like the world, it must contain everything.”
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In Wagner’s later operas, he certainly tried to explain the world and existence. Yes, much music is pleasant to listen to, but who with a human heart can hear the Liebestod without breaking down in recognition of his own ineluctable mortality, and worse, the loss of those we most dearly love.
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Igor Stravinsky once lied through his teeth and claimed that “music can express nothing,” but can you listen to Schubert’s C-major string quintet and not weep with depth of its sorrow?
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These three motives in art are everywhere, and We should be careful not to dismiss something because we assume it is trying to do something it is not. Roger Ebert often wrote about judging a movie by what it is aiming to do, not by what the critic wishes it did.
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Art can entertain; it can disturb; it can perplex. It can fulfill an expectation or subvert it. There are more colors than one. There is the story, how it is told and what it means.
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Q.E.D.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Imagine nothing. Now, imagine that not even nothing exists, for after all, nothing is something. At the very least “nothing” implies its opposite, and I’m asking you to imagine a time before opposites are possible, before time is possible.
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Then, imagine a point, the way geometry defines a point, with no dimensions. This point is something. But it can exist for only a billion-trillionth of a second — although a second is something that doesn’t really exist yet. The word “yet” implies that a future does exist, however, and in that infinitesimal fraction of eternity the point — which is everything that exists or ever will exist — physicists tell us that the point “expanded,” although that word cannot adequately express the explosion. In fact, the universe ejaculated into both something and nothing. It gave rise to particles and antiparticles and we were off to the races.
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As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “Thus something and nothing produce each other.”
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Now, 13.799 billion years later, the universe is still expanding, ever faster and faster. And we are riding on one meager little mote in that great soup, called the planet Earth. Now, “nothing” is what exists between the bits of “something.”
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That is our Creation Myth.
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By calling it a myth, I am not implying it is not true, or not factual. Myth does not mean something is untrue, but means it is our way of comprehending what is beyond our actual understanding.
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Myth is our explanation to ourselves of something. It may be factual, it may be fantastical. It may be taken literally or it may be understood as metaphor. Either way, it is an approach to the comprehension of something too complex to be held in the mind any other way.
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A physicist may be able to put the math together and parse out the myth in non-mythic terms (I use the word “may” advisedly), but for the rest of us, we take it on faith that our creation myth is scientifically verifiable and therefore, factual. It is the myth we believe in, i.e., the story we take as true. (That it is true is irrelevant to its function as myth).
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We mistakenly tend to look on myth as something from the past: Zeus or Achilles, or Odin, or Indra fighting Vritra, or Quetzalcoatl, or the Chinese dragon. It is something we condescend to, having learned better. We know that thunder isn’t clouds crashing together. But such an attitude misunderstands myth and its function. We all live by myth, even now.
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There are things we do not or cannot understand. Either too complicated to grasp or just plain unknowable. We need a metaphor to help us come to grips with such things. Language cannot describe such things with the precision of a dictionary, but rather it has to fall back on not “what it is,” but “what is it like.” We tell a story.
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The Big Bang is our story. When we assume our superiority, we fail to understand that for most of us, we are relying on the argument from authority no less than the Middle Ages did. We must accept that the physicist knows what we merely accept. (I am making the assumption that a physicist has a more complete understanding than even an educated lay person).
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And since we cannot know every corner of relativity or quantum mechanics, we simplify it all into a comprehensible story. The Big Bang.
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I am not claiming what science has parsed out is false, but that our understanding as non-scientists is a mythological understanding, not a literal one. And for that matter, I doubt any scientist is conversant in all aspects of theory. Perhaps he or she has a good grasp on black holes, but how much has he or she published on quasars? Specialization is necessary for modern science, and even a scientist has to rely on the work of others.
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All of which takes me off point: Creation myth. There are so many of them, from the Chinese cosmic egg to the Mesopotamian butchery of the sea goddess Tiamat. The one we are most familiar with is that of Genesis.
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“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light.”
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We are so used to the organ tones of the King James translation that sometimes putting it into modern English takes away some of the majesty.
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“When God began creating the sky and earth, the earth was formless and empty.”
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A literal translation from the ancient Hebrew is even more peculiar: “When it all started up, and the gods were arranging the sky and the ground, When the earth was emptiness with darkness over the ocean, the wind of the gods hung over the face of the water. The gods said: ‘Let there be light,’ and light happened.” Yes, the word for God in Chapter 1 of the story is “Elohim,” which is plural.
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There are many believers who take this story literally, just as most of us take the Big Bang. For most of us, the Bible story is a story. If we had to stake our lives on it, we would defend physics and — even if we were Christian believers — accept that ancient Middle-Eastern poetry is just that.
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“Mythology opens the world so that it becomes transparent to something that is beyond speech, beyond words, in short, to what we call transcendence,” said scholar Joseph Campbell. The King James Genesis is transcendent poetry. But so is our story of the Big Bang.
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“The energies of the universe, the energies of life, that come up in the sub-atomic particle displays that science shows us, are operative. They come and go. Where do they come from? Where do they go? Is there a where?”
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Physicist Paul Dirac in 1930 imagined a where: Now called the “Dirac Sea,” it is an infinite XX of subatomic particles that exist beneath our visible world. An electron may pop up anywhere, as quantum physics has shown, and may disappear also. Where they come from, where they go is the Dirac Sea. Using the nautical term is another case of mythology making familiar what cannot be grasped otherwise.
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“The ultimate ground of being transcends definition, transcends our knowledge,” said Campbell. “When you begin to ask about ultimates, you are asking about something that transcends all the categories of thought, the categories of being and non being. True, false; these are, as Kant points out in The Critique of Pure Reason, functions of our mode of experience. And all life has to come to us through the esthetic forms of time and space, and the logical ones of the categories of logic, so we think within that frame.
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“But what is beyond? Even the word beyond suggests a category of thought. So transcendence is literally transcendent.”
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Vedic mythology has many creation stories, but the one most widely seen has the Brahman, or the ultimate ground of reality, as the source of all. However as it says in the Upanishads, the Brahman is just a word, and already it is a distortion of the ultimate, which is beyond words, beyond category, beyond comprehension. As Campbell says it, it has never been soiled by words.
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“Of all knowledge,” Campbell said. “In the Kena Upanishad, written back in the seventh century BC, it says very clearly, ‘that to which words and thoughts do not reach.’ The tongue has never soiled it with a name. That’s what transcendent means. And the mythological image is always pointing toward transcendence and giving you the sense of riding on this mystery.”
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So, we look at the Hubble image of a portion of the Eagle Nebula and have named it “The Pillars of Creation.” It is a transcendent image, and fills most of us with genuine awe. But of course, it is a photograph in false color: It would not look that way if seen by a human eye through a telescope. It is a myth. Again, I am not saying it is not true — even the false color is true in its way — it provides a way to see wavelengths that cannot register in a human eye, but are there nonetheless.
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But let us go back again to that bit before “something” and before “nothing” — those pairs of opposites.
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In his De Rerum Natura (“On  the Nature of Things”), the Roman writer Lucretius comes very close to both modern astrophysics and to quantum mechanics, although told in mythic terms rather than mathematical formula.
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For Lucretius, the universe has always existed. Nothing can be created from nothing, he wrote, nor can it be destroyed — anticipating the conservation of matter and energy. But the universe originally was an undifferentiated mass of atoms, all traveling in straight lines — anticipating Newton’s First Law of Motion — but oddly the atoms had an irrational  tendency to “swerve.” This unaccounted divergence of the atoms’ direction led them to bump into each other, to make concentrations of matter in some localities and voids of matter in others — very like the astrophysicists’ explanation of how the cooling of the Big Bang led to unequal distribution of matter in the early universe through density fluctuations.
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Before anything, there was Chaos. We should not be fooled by modern science’s version of Chaos Theory. It that, chaos is just something so complex it cannot be predicted by mathematical formula. But mythological Chaos is something else again: It is before the organization of “categories of thought.” It is to order what eternity is to time. Not unordered as beyond any idea of order. Chaos can only be understood mythologically. It cannot be described either in words or algebra.
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Percy Shelley called it “the intense inane,” where “inane” has its original meaning, not of insipidity but of the terrible void. Latin “inanis.”
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My favorite Creation myth is found in the opening of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Before sea or land, before even sky which contains all, Nature wore only one mask — since called chaos. A huge agglomeration of upset. A bolus of everything — but as if aborted. And the total arsenal of entropy already at war within it. No sun showed one thing to another, no moon played her phases in heaven. No earth spun in empty air on her own magnet, no ocean basked or roamed on the long beaches.
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“Land, sea, air, were all there but not to be trodden, or swum in. Air was simply darkness. Everything fluid or vapor, forms formless, each thing hostile to every other thing: At every point hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless resisted weight.
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“God, or some such artist as resourceful, began to sort it out. land here, sky there, and sea there. Up there, the heavenly stratosphere. Down here, the cloudy, the windy. He gave to each its place, independent, gazing about freshly. …
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“He rolled earth into a ball. Then he commanded the water to spread out flat, to life itself into waves according to the whim of the wind, and to hurl itself at the land’s edges. … Hardly had he, the wise one, ordered all this than the stars, clogged before in the dark huddle of Chaos, alit, glittering in their positions.”
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— I.e., The Pillars of Creation.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons

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by Richard Nilsen

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One of my great pleasures, when I was an art critic, was visiting artist studios. Certainly, there was usually a mess, spattered paint, cans dripping or tubes squeezed, and rags and brushes. Things taped to the walls, papers scattered and, often, music blaring. But there was also a sense of purpose, a sense that someone here knew what he or she was doing.
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I had that sense again recently while visiting my brother-in-law, the painter Mel Steele. I love his work. And I can watch over time as he works and reworks his canvas, trying this or that to make it better.
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Mel is a professional. And by that, I don’t just mean he sells his work, or that he is talented. That goes without saying. I mean something more particular. It is something I see in the work and work habits of many artists I have come across, from Jim Waid to James Turrell.
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I have been thinking about the manifest difference between the work of an amateur and that of a professional. And I don’t mean to denigrate the work of amateurs. Indeed, there are professionals stunning mediocrity and there are amateurs hugely talented. No, I mean something about the approach to the work.
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This is something that I have been cogitating about since retiring. Without making any great boast about my own writing, I can say with utter confidence that I wrote as a professional. This is not a claim about quality or greatness, but about some inner acquaintance with the nitty-gritty of the craft. It has been seven years since I worked for The Arizona Republic and I can say with confidence that writers never really retire: They just stop getting paid.
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In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the secret to achieving meaningful achievement is to repeat something 10,000 times. The book has been trashed by many critics as a kind of pop psychology, but without taking the actual number as gospel, certainly one of the things that makes a professional is that repetition. You don’t become a professional — as I mean it here — by being hired. You do it over the long haul, writing every day for years. Or painting every day for years. Or dancing, or playing violin. Or, for that matter, plumbing or dealing in the stock market.
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For all that patience, what you get are several things. First, you get better at what you do. But you also become familiar with the business. By that, I don’t just mean the financial side of the work, but the daily bits of familiar habit. As a writer, that means understanding deadlines, the importance of editors and copy editors, the argot of the trade — point size, picas, inches, folios, air, heds, ledes, trims, slots, cutlines, sidebars, widows, and more than I can even now remember. But was once the lingo of my daily life.
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If told I had 10 inches to fill on deadline, I could write a piece that would come in at 10 inches, give or take nary more than a line, before I even measured it. You just have the feel of it. Occasionally, I would return to the office from a concert at 10:50 p.m. to write a review and have 10 minutes to file before deadline. I could whip that sucker out: Ten inches in 10 minutes, and feel at the end like a rodeo cowboy tying the feet of a calf and throwing my arms out in triumph.
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More important, you divest yourself of the bad habits of your amateur years and your novitiate. You unconsciously avoid using the same word twice in paragraph; you vary your sentence length; You know instinctively to include just the amount of background your reader needs, without burdening him or her with unnecessary detail; and you know in what order to present that background. You become aware of consistency within a piece: Do you spell out numbers or use integers (knowing to spell it at the beginning of a sentence or after a colon)? Do you know where commas fall? Do you abbreviate “street” or not? All this comes with familiarity and practice.
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I now look with embarrassment at something I wrote when I first came to the newspaper business because I see all the stupid mistakes I made. Rookie mistakes. Over time and countless deadlines, you leave those inelegancies behind.
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Most of all, you gain a comfort level: a sense that you know what you’re doing. Like a pianist who can run his spider fingers up and down the keyboard and confidently hit each B-flat as it passes. Or a painter who automatically reaches for the Hooker’s green because the Phthalo won’t give him the shade he needs.
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You watch Jacques Pepin on TV slicing an onion and you can see how second-nature it has become, how quickly and accurately he does it. He knows how to make an omelet because, as he preaches, he’s done it 10,000 times. There may be more creative or innovative chefs out there, even among amateurs, but you have to admire Pepin for his confident professionalism.
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Nor is a professional precious about his work. Museum curators can be fussy about white gloves and humidity levels, but the artists themselves are seldom so concerned. If they screw up, “I can always paint another one.” It is not unusual for Mel to paint over some detail he was unhappy with, even weeks or months later, to alter the work. It is only amateur writers who bitch and moan about editors changing their sacred texts. Editors (good editors — and I was lucky to have only good ones) make the writing better, cleaner, more precise. Even such things as cutting stories to fit news holes won’t perturb the professional. He may negotiate, but he won’t whine.
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I’ve written about artists and journalists because that is the world I know best. But much the same could be said about professional musicians, construction foremen or career diplomats. Professionalism, as I mean it here, is not simply about being paid; it is an attitude. An approach to the work. A comfort level and familiarity, an ease, an assurance.
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And any true professional can spot a navvy in an instant. You won’t necessarily feel superior, but you will feel a kind of pity for the poor beginner. There is so much to learn that is entirely beyond merely talent.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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How many sides does a triangle have? Don’t be too quick; it’s a trick question.
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Usually, math is not thought of as something where you can have opinions over answers. It’s one of math’s most reassuring qualities.
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Too often, we take what we hear at face value. Facts turn out not to be facts. No one changed your family’s name at Ellis Island. Didn’t happen.
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These are not just myths, they are just things that sound like they could be true and so become embedded in our midden of common knowledge. No, Eskimos do not have 30 or 43, or 90 words for “snow.” Human beings do not use merely 10 percent of their brains. A triangle has three sides. This is all stuff for the Cliff Clavins of the world.
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Sometimes this stuff gets caught in our mental wheel spokes because we simply don’t look closely enough. Take the Fibonacci series. We are told that this interesting pattern of numbers governs much of what appears in nature, including the spiral patterns we see everywhere from whelk shells to spiral galaxies. The problem is, observation does not support this idea, at least not as it is usually presented.
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The series is created by starting with a zero and a 1 and adding them together, and continues by adding each new number with the previous, making the series: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. The series has many interesting properties, one of which is the generation of the so-called “Golden Section.”
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To the Greeks, the golden section was the ratio ”AB is to BC as BC is to AC.” It also generates the Fibonacci series and is said to define how nature makes spirals.
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Look at the end of a whelk shell, they say, or the longitudinal section of a nautilus shell, and you will see the Fibonacci series in action.
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Yet it is not actually true. When you look at whelks, you find spirals and the Fibonacci series creates a spiral, but the two spirals are quite different:
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The mathematical spiral opens up much more rapidly. The shellfish has a tighter coil. The whelk’s spiral makes roughly two turns for every turn the Fibonacci spiral makes. Math is precise, but nature is various.
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What I am most interested in here is not just the agon of conflicting beliefs, but rather the faith in mathematics, and the sense that math describes, or rather, underpins the organization of the world.
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I cannot help thinking, in contrast, that these patterns are something not so much inherent in Creation, as cast out from our brains like a fishing net over the many fish in the universe.
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Take any large string of events, items or tendencies, and the brain will organize them and throw a story around them, creating order even where none exists.
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Consider the night sky, for instance, a rattling jostle of burning pinpoints. We find in that chaos the images of bears and serpents, lions and bulls. Even those who no longer can find the shape of a great bear can spot the Big Dipper. The outline seems drawn in the sky with stars, yet the constellations have no actual existence outside the order-creating human mind.
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Our own lives — which are a complex tangle of events, conflicting emotions and motives — are too prodigal to fit into a single coherent narrative, even the size of a Russian novel. Yet we do so all the time, creating a sense of self as if we were writing autobiographies and giving our lives a narrative shape that makes them meaningful to us.
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We usually believe the narrative version of our lives actually exists. Yet all of us could write an entirely different story by stringing events together with a different emphasis.
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The question always arises: Are the patterns actually there in life and nature, or do we create them in our heads and cast them like a net over reality?
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The issue is central to a brilliant movie made in 1998 by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky called Pi. In the film, a misfit math genius is searching for the mathematical organizing principle of the cosmos.
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His working hypotheses are simple:
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“One: Mathematics is the language of nature.
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“Two: Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
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“Three: If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.
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“Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.”
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The movie’s protagonist nearly drives himself nuts with his search until he cannot bear his own obsession anymore.
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But the film also questions in a roundabout way whether the patterns exist or not.
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In the film, when different number series — each 216 digits long — seem to be important, an older colleague warns our hero that, once you begin looking for a pattern, it seems to be everywhere.
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It’s like when you buy a yellow Volkswagen and suddenly every other car on the road is immediately a yellow VW. Nothing has changed but your perception.
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Mathematicians find patterns in nature, yet math itself is purely self-referential. It can only describe itself.
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As mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell put it: “Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about nor whether what we are saying is true.”
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In other words, “one plus one equals two” is no different from saying “a whale is not a fish.” You have only spoken within a closed system. “A whale is not a fish” tells us nothing about whales but a lot about our language.
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It is a description of linguistic categories, rather less an observational statement about existence. Biology can be organized as a system of knowledge to make the sentence false — indeed, at other times in history a whale was a fish.
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Before Carl Linne, who created the modern biological nomenclatural system, there were many ways of organizing biology. In his popular History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1774 and reprinted well into the 19th century, Oliver Goldsmith divided the fish into “spinous fishes,” “cartilaginous fishes,” “testaceous and crustaceous fishes” and “cetaceous fishes.” A mackerel, a sand dollar and Moby Dick were all kinds of fish.
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Let’s face it, although the Linnaean system is useful, it is kind of arbitrary to organize nature not by its shapes, or where it lives, but rather how it gives birth or breathes.
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“One plus one” likewise describes the system in which the equation is true. It is only a tautology. Real knowledge is metaphorical, hence, “artists’ math.”
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Artists have a different way of counting, of doing arithmetic and of contemplating geometry. It’s what makes them artists.
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For an artist, one plus one equals three. It is a very clear formula: There is the one thing, the other thing, and the two together — a knife, a fork and a place setting. Three things.
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And a triangle has five sides. There are the normal three, and then the front and back. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. Cut a triangle from a piece of paper and hold it in your hand. Your thumb is on one side of the triangle and your index finger on the other. Add’em up: Five.
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Computer programmers talk about fuzzy logic as if they discovered it.
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It is artists who wake up each morning in a Gaussian blur, after all. It is artists who first understood that all numbers are irrational numbers.
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The primary difference between a mathematician’s logic and an artist’s is that the artist is unable to leave the world behind: The mathematician, the logician, the philosopher deal in abstractions; the artist deals in plums.
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The artist lives in a world of things. Real things: palpable, noisy, smelly, difficult and beautiful. He mistrusts any answers not rooted in them.
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The sentimental view of artists has them constructing “castles in the sky,” but the artist scratches his head over this, because to him, it is math and philosophy that are constructed out of thin air.
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“No ideas but in things,” wrote poet William Carlos Williams. Like the plums that were so cold and so delicious in his poem.
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Don’t get me wrong: One should not dismiss the practical world out of hand. It is good to know how to balance a checkbook, and artists’ math does not carry much clout with the bank.
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An artist is likely to use something called “gut mathematics.”
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The artist knows, as a banker usually doesn’t, that the shortest distance between two points is a leap of the imagination.
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She also knows that three is more interesting than four. It just is. Ask any artist.
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And when an artist talks of pie charts, she wants to know if it is cherry or lemon meringue.
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Like the old math gag: “Pi R square.” “No, pie R round, cake R square.”
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It’s fun to joke about artists’ idiosyncrasies, but there is a serious side to all this.
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When we see yammering faces on TV shouting each other down over ideology, the artist is the one who can remind us that the world isn’t made up of theory or system, but is made up of hubcaps and clamshells. Ideology means very little to an asparagus.
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The world falls into peril every time a system denies physical reality. It is abstractions, after all, that fueled the Cold War, abstractions that justify suicide bombing; it was theory that built Auschwitz.
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Artists remind us of flannel, of smoke, of mud. These are the things we share with our family and our friends. These are the things that ultimately count.
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No ideas but in things.
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It reminds me of a line written by the poet Tom Brown:
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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There is no city more photogenic than Paris. New York does well by the camera, too, but Paris has that je ne sais quoi. London hardly shows up on the camera map; Los Angeles only serves as a set for movies. But Paris is the City of Light and untold photographers have asked it to be their model.
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I’m not talking here of travel photos — those gaudy, sunny-skied brochure pictures — nor of the vacation snapshots we bring home to show friends, but photographs made by artists, trying to find the visual metaphor for city-ness or life, or an armature to hang their shapes, colors and textures. These are photographers for whom the purpose of clicking their shutters is to capture some human emotion or intricate design.
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The city is also lucky to have had many photographers whose names are intimately tied to it and whose images have practically defined Paris for many of us. New York City may have had Joel Meyerowitz and Weegee, but Paris had Charles Marville, Eugene Atget, Brassai, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Robert Doisneau, Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, among many others.
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The earliest known photograph to contain an image of a human being was made in Paris in 1838 by Louis-Jacques Daguerre (the exposure was so long, no one on the busy street registered on the plate but a man standing still to have his shoes shined).
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So many others: Edouard Boubat; Jeanloup Sieff; George Hoyningen-Huene; Guy Bourdin; William Klein; Germaine Krull; Lucien Clergue; Gisele Freund; Edouard Baldus; Hippolyte Bayard; and Nadar (Gaspard-Felix Tournachon) who made the first aerial photos of Paris, from a gas-filled balloon in 1858.
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The greatest of the early photographers who have given us our Paris is Atget (1857-1927), a strange little man who took upon himself the project of archiving images of a city he saw disappearing before his eyes. The old city was giving way to the modern, and he dragged his camera all over the city to capture buildings, streets, doorways, windows, door knockers, fences — even peculiar trees and people. His work was little regarded as anything but the hobby of an eccentric, until American photographer Berenice Abbott discovered him as an old man, and bought his surviving prints and negatives and persuaded galleries and museums to exhibit them.
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But Atget was not the first to try to document old Paris. In 1851, author Prosper Mérimeé commissioned the Missions Héliographiques, to photograph French monuments needing restoration. He hired five photographers: Baldus, Bayard, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and Auguste Mestral, who divided up the city and surrounding country to create a catalog.
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Better known is the work of Charles Marville (1813-1879), named official photographer of Paris in 1862, who was hired to photograph the city before the radical urban renewal undertaken by Baron Haussmann (the prototype of Robert Moses), who widened boulevards and tore down slums and narrow alleys.
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During La Belle Epoque, Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) began photographing at the age of seven and captured life in Pre-WWI Paris. As an adult, he mostly gave up photography to be a painter, but it is the irrepressible pictures he made as a boy that he is remembered for.
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   After the War to End All Wars, Paris became the home of emigres and artists. A Hungarian, who called himself Brassai (1899-1984), came to love the bohemian underworld of the city and between the wars made the memorable photos of bars, prostitutes, artists and the city at night. His most famous book, Paris de Nuit (1933) practically invented the way we see the Paris of Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Henry Miller.
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In 1925, another Hungarian, André Kertész (1894-1985), moved to Paris and carved out a career as a photojournalist with an experimental and artistic bent, often using unusual angles and designs. He later moved to the U.S., but his Paris is one of the visual landmarks of the century.
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Robert Doisneau (1912-1994) began photographing in the late 1930s, but the war interrupted his career and it is his photographs from the 1950s and after that are his legacy — a collection of photographs of visual puns, gentle mimicry and humanist concern. His jokes are never simply gags, but moments captured seemingly at random while people do the things that people do.
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It is that instant, called the “decisive moment” by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) that define his work. One of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th Century, HCB, as he is sometimes called, filled his inch-by-inch-and-a-half Leica frame with designs so perfect, they seemed assembled like jigsaw puzzles. He intended to catch the perfect interaction of subject and motion to make a photograph that stands on its own as art, even when commissioned as an illustration to a magazine story or book.
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This is all a very short precis of Parisian art photography. There is so much more to say about it, including Richard Avedon’s use of the city as a backdrop to his animated fashion photos of the Fifties, and the crazy energy of the often out-of-focus black and white of William Klein. Or the photographs Swiss-born Robert Frank made in Paris before he moved to the U.S. and defined Eisenhower’s era in his book, The Americans(1958).
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Of course, Paris is a perfect subject for a camera. Many cities are interchangeable, and dropped into their downtowns unannounced, you would be hard pressed to tell which city it was. But Paris is unquestionably Paris, to the point of almost being a parody of itself. There is romance:
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There is the eucharist of bread and wine:
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When you enter Paris with your camera, you find there is little change between then and now:
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There are cafes, markets, fountains, boulevards, architecture and, most of all, people. The camera still has plenty to make a meal of.
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I’ve been to the city many times, and have made thousands of photographs, and almost every one of them says the one word, whispered in my welcoming ear: “Paris.”
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Perhaps you have a different favorite. Perhaps it is Rome that holds you tight, or Prague, or Dayton, Ohio. The job is to use your eyes and your lens to find what defines that spot, not only on the map, but in your affections and mind. Manhattan is surprisingly filled with trees; Chicago has its trains; New Orleans is framed by bridges; and Las Vegas is … well … very much itself.
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Even Phoenix has its visual soul, although it is often fried by the Sol. Take your camera out (or your phone — I know a photographer who has published an entire book of photographs of Havana taken entirely with his iPhone. The images are stunning). It matters less if it is Johannesburg, South Africa, or downtown Phoenix. There is something for the frame.
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Although in my book, Paris beats them all.
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Click on any image to enlarge
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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