It has been some time since I have written anything here, bar a couple of more or less off-topic posts (though everything is grist to the mill, really). In the spirit of letting my readers and myself know what to expect, I would like to set the aim of two posts a week. It’s possible the focus of this blog will shift, but I hope its centre of gravity will remain literary and aesthetic. I add the latter term because just as I have written about some recondite topics in a way I hope will make sense to readers even less well acquainted with them than I am myself, I can imagine posting about technical matters that may seem to fall entirely outside the scope of these ruminations, but also in a way intended to convey something of their feeling and interest. The gap between the humanities and the sciences is as lamentable as that between the present and the past, if we do not try and bridge it, and an excuse for different philistinisms on each side. I suppose there’s a feeling that the technocrats have the upper hand, but that’s all the more reason to make peace and foster understanding, in the spirit of the conquest of Rome by Greece.

A friend suggested to me that it is the coherence of the text that allows us access to its feeling at such a remove. Rather than starting from the tone and building on that, the reader — at least, the reader who is obliged by cultural distance to read philologically — works down through the internal logic of the poem to its foundations in actual sound and sensation, whether of lived experience or living language. A shopping list would be much harder to read in this way. I am reminded of a post I wrote some time ago about “getting the jokes” in ancient tongues chiselled or wedged in cuneiform: continue immersion until you do. One can’t help feeling that some of those ancient near eastern peoples (or at least, those individuals in a position to employ scribes) were lacking in sense of humour, but perhaps that was just the impression they wanted to create; so we should look for the Spitting Image of the pyramids, the Monty Python of the Assyrians.

Wang Wei’s poem is as fresh as a daisy after almost thirteen centuries, while raising interesting questions about how feeling and tone are transmitted from so far off. First of all:


The following interpretation draws on Hugh Stimson’s Fifty-five T’ang Poems. First, a crude translation:

Amidst the windy autumn rain
A low waterfall flows over a stone
Jumping waves collide with a splash
A white egret startles and again alights

Here are a few things this crib fails to capture; it is an open question by what means they might be poetically rendered in English, but they would certainly be other means than Wang Wei’s, which is the point I mean to explore here — how we can nonetheless have some sense of what those effects are, even given severely limited knowledge of the language of the period.

Chinese uses reduplication to mollify, to convey repetition or intensity, and for onomatopoeia, amongst other things, effects associated in some European languages with the diminutive; two examples can be seen at the start of the first two lines. In tandem, these lines show parallelism, where the similar grammatical function of the characters at the respective positions in each line draws attention to contrast, repetition, or development. Thus characters three and four in each line are “autumn rain” and “waterfall” (literally, “stone — water current”. If the beginning of line one represents the soughing of the wind, this is implicitly softened by the structural parallel with the diminutive expressing the small scale of the waterfall.

A similar process is seen in the second couplet, where the spontaneous effervescence of the little waves is repeated in the avian acrobatics they provoke. Character three in line three, “of themselves”, partners the verb “startle” in the last line, so that the extra animation of the water is transferred to the bird or birds (singular or plural, though I opted for the former because of the small scale of the scene). That reading of 3.3 (taking it as making a point of its own, rather than subsumed in the “each other” of the following character) is also supported by the structure of line four, where the break in sense falls before the penultimate character.

Considering the shape of the poem as a whole, the first parallel supports the second, in a way the point of the poem, between water and heron. There is also a movement towards greater liveliness, from what could be the movement-in-stasis of rainfall and water flowing over a rock to the startlingly playful waves that bring out a similar quality in the nature of the bird. The text positively splishes and sploshes with zest — this even though current knowledge of the actual sounds, the pronunciation of the characters at the time of composition, is incomplete; it may be worth mentioning that lines two and four rhyme, sealing the sense of coherence. I am not sure whether the species of bird can be precisely identified, but if so, that might add the recognition through the prism of the poem of something characteristic of their actual habits.

I hope these few details obviate the need for a discursive examination of how, in my view, this quatrain triumphantly bridges the gap of the centuries, preserving at least enough of its original feeling to justify the sense of a continuity of understanding.

The Novo Recife development envisages the construction of twelve luxury residential towers forty or fifty storeys high in a prime seafront site. True to their name, they would reshape the skyline of the city. This symbolic aspect is congruent with the specifically urbanistic objections that might be raised against the proposal. On a local level, there is no integration with the existing area, on which the towers will turn their backs, missing an opportunity to bring new life to their run-down surroundings. Mixed use, with shops, bars, restaurants — in short, lively streets — and residential units of various sizes aimed at diverse age and income groups would make a contribution to the city as a whole that uniform luxury cannot. Recife is not currently an attractive or inclusive urban environment, and this project gives paramount expression to the factors that make this so, setting the seal on the arrogant dominion of wealth. On the level of politics, this corresponds to the absence of the state, whose institutions (whose role should be to regulate the market) are bought and sold with campaign donations and through other forms of corruption. Even if governance improves in future, these terrible towers will be the monument to a naked abuse of economic power that has nothing new about it at all, in the tradition of the sugar cane plantation and its slaves. The very architecture alludes to this in the division between “casa grande” and “senzala” — the master’s house and the negro quarters. Those within the walls are separately, privately secure in a comfort achieved by excluding the many without, rejecting the idea of the common good, and therefore the city itself, reduced to a dangerous wilderness to be shut out and put out of mind while contemplating the unpopulated vistas of the ocean.

The concept has been fancifully transferred to other locations to bring home the sheer effrontery of the project:


As the World Cup kicks off, the site is home to an occupy-style encampment in protest. Let us hope the opportunity to build something better here is not lost.

#ocupeestelita #projetonovorecife

The conductor Carlos Kleiber emigrated as a child from Nazi Germany to South America, spending his teenage years there. To judge from Youtube videos of rehearsals, he spoke both English and German fluently but with an accent. Perhaps his Spanish was word-perfect, but what does that mean? Alan Turing proposed the test named after him, that if someone talking to a computer through a link couldn’t tell it from a human being, then it could be considered sentient. Judging a person’s linguistic competence by their ability to “pass” is similarly unreflective about what constitutes the achievement in question, though in either case it’s a tough challenge. I recently met an Englishman — unmistakeably, uncontestably so by that criterion — born and bred in Paris, to English parents. Having lived in Brazil for eight years or so, my own English has had little recent fresh input, and there were a couple of occasions during the conversation when we both stumbled. The accent is so telling because it is part of one’s social and cultural identity, within a language as well as between languages, and it’s surely for that reason it is unusual for adult learners of a new language ever to “pass” for native. But it is a marker of native competence, not its substance. That is made up of tranches of lived experience in the language in question such as having passed through the education system speaking it, as well as reading and writing more generally. The monoculture of the nation-state favours the concentration of identity and experience within a single language for each individual — the melting-pot washes away difference in three generations — but it was not always so and need not always be today. Woodrow Wilson’s criterion of linguistic self-determination to reshape the map of Europe a century ago instituted rather than reflected the sweeping away of the cosmpolitanism of two defunct empires, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, with messy and ugly consequences up to the present.

The carnival of Recife and Olinda bears little resemblance to the floats and samba of Rio commonly associated with it abroad. Typically, a small group of people gets together to pay for the band of musicians that goes at the front of the “bloco”, headed by a standard-bearer. If you buy the T-shirt (which pays for the music and other trappings) you’re a member, so the bloco may grow considerably larger over the years. I don’t know how many there are, but it feels like hundreds. On the day everyone gathers at the starting point, then eventually they head off around the city, the band leading the way, singing their song. This generally occurs once at the “preview” during the weeks leading up to carnival, where there will be more space and time, and then again in the city centre during the four days of carnival proper. Carts and stalls appear selling beer and snacks. The whole thing is in principle regulated by the municipal authorities, with agreed routes, but the impression is one of utter anarchy, in its element in narrow, winding streets rather than processing along an avenue. It is the city’s Saturnalia, a safety valve. Despite the democratic symbolism of the people taking over the street — good luck to you if you are caught up in the middle of it in your car — there aren’t generally any obvious political overtones, though I’m told that was more common in the past, and there is almost never any trouble. Carnival continued every year throughout the miltary dictatorship (1964 – 1985).

Photographer unknown

Photographer unknown — Recife Antigo

Over the past twenty years the city has grown vertically, the height of apartment blocks in proportion to advances in construction techniques and the inflation of property prices. The seafront is a particular hotspot, and the logical conclusion of the process can be seen in Boa Viagem, the city’s main beach, which is now obscured by shadows just after lunchtime. The view from the apartments that cause them must be spectacular. A number of new projects of forty storeys and more, such as the twelve-tower “Novo Recife” on Cais Estelita, are in the pipeline for the old city centre. If they are built they will transform and dominate the skyline, not with new civic buildings, nor the engines of commerce (in the spirit of the World Trade Centre in New York) — but with lavish accommodation for the city’s most privileged individuals, turning their back on it to face the open sea.

Photo by Edinéa Alcântara

Photo by Edinéa Alcântara

While the symbolism of such developments is important, their impact is also very concrete. As a housing model, they are predicated on the car, surrounded by high walls and electric fences, creating an urban desert around them, with no contact between residents and neighbourhood. These streets are not only unattractive and unwelcoming, but dangerous. They create the divided, walled-off city as well as symbolising it. This social deficit is compounded by environmental ones: increased traffic, higher flood risk because of the displacement of green areas, and large temperature increases for the same reason, compounded by reduced ventilation. These costs affect everyone but are ignored by the developers, who benefit from such infrastructure as the city has as a common good, but put very little back.

Photo by Catarina Cabral

Photo by Catarina Cabral

It is a classic market failure, where the absence of effective regulation means the leading criterion for housing and other projects is the developer’s profit, not the collective impact on the shared space of the city. More dwellings do need to be built, and the private sector needs an incentive to do so, but this change in the urban landscape should take place in a coherent manner that takes account of the needs of all social groups and that will make the city a more pleasant place to live in the long term, with diverse and bustling thoroughfares and open spaces. Neither a developer nor the architect nor the prospective purchaser can easily have such an all-round view of the city as the complex social system it is, and so there is a need for effective, transparent and robust planning.

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Protest in Latin America tends to be associated with revolution, regarded as a challenge to the political order rather than a sign that it is in good democratic health — or one of the checks and balances needed to stop government drifting towards an arbitrary, authoritarian stance and being hijacked by special interests. “Empatando tua vista” [blocking your view] is a new carnival bloco advancing just such a local, specific protest about the unsavoury property speculation that is tearing the city apart. The format departs from tradition in that the participants, dressed as indentikit skyscrapers in pastel shades, go to other carnival events where they tower over the crowd, blocking the view and discussing the issues with all comers.

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

My wife, Edinéa, is in the thick of the action, helping make the costumes and rallying the troops, so I really had no choice but to get involved. As a result, I’ve seen a lot more of carnival this year than of late, and spending it in such company does seem to show it in its best light, just as carnival itself flourishes at the intimate scale of the traditional urban fabric that is under such threat from bland development centred on individual aspiration, rather than a sense of community and place. That community — the human face of the abstraction “civil society” — is also a concrete thing, or perhaps it would be better to say flesh-and-blood, embodied in the conviviality of the streets. This city could do with much more of it.

Photo by Ana Videla

Photo by Ana Videla

See also the video version here.