Shared Secrets

Within moments of having laid eyes on Schemselnihar, the Prince of Persia begins “swallow[ing] large draughts of the delicious poison of love.”

The blossoming romance perturbs Aboulhassan Ebn Thaher, a widely respected local druggist in whose shop the lovers’ initial encounter takes place. The Prince of Persia—or more precisely, Aboulhassan Ali Ebn Becar—is “of the blood royal of Persia”, to be sure, and a worthy match for Schemselnihar. It’s the latter’s relationship to the ruling Caliph Haroun Alraschid—she’s widely known as “the first favorite of our sovereign master”—that gives Ebn Thaher pause.

Ebn Thaher warns the prince against his “direful and fatal passion”, which “will plunge you in an abyss from which you can never again extricate yourself.” His warnings assume heightened exigency when a second rendezvous, in Schemselnihar’s personal palace, is cut short by the unexpected arrival of the caliph himself. The pair of visitors narrowly escape in a rowboat on the river Tigris.

The forlorn lovers begin sending each other letters, upon the violation of whose secrecy “the caliph’s anger will first fall on Schemselnihar; the prince will assuredly lose his life,” Ebn Thaher insists. Things become worse when the druggist, acutely perceiving the “dreadful consequences of their proceedings”, abandons Baghdad for Balsora, leaving the lovers without a trusted communication channel.

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A scene from Arabian Nights, illustrated by Anton Pieck.

From these events unfolds an intricate network of uncertainty, deception, and trust, bearing, moreover, vital import. Continue reading

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Proust’s Envelopes

Monsieur Charles Swann is artistically inclined (but primarily as a collector), musically gifted (though sharpest as a critic), and “a particular friend of the Comte de Paris”. The appearance of a painting from his collection (on loan at the Corot) in the pamphlet for the Figaro serves—en fin de compte—as nothing more than an occasion for his abasement at the hands of the narrator’s jealous great-aunt. His artistic talents are squandered on the decoration of old society ladies’ drawing rooms. In his occasional spare moments, he tinkers with an ever-unfinished essay on Vermeer of Delft.

Odette de Crécy, on the other hand, arouses in him—at least at first—nothing more than feelings of indifference.

It’s no wonder, then, that what finally moves Swann’s heart—what sets in motion a helpless, protracted infatuation—is Swann’s sudden recognition, in Odette, of a likeness to a figure with ancient significance: Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, as she appears in Botticelli’s The Youth of Moses.

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Detail of Moses and Zipporah’s daughters, from Botticelli’s The Youth of Moses.

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Losing Count

Edmond Dantès is a promising young sailor growing up in the French fishing village of Marseilles. Just as he is preparing to accept the captainship of his vessel and to marry the love of his life, Dantès is framed as a Bonapartist, a heinous crime in the eyes of the Royalist regime of early 19th century France. The Count of Monte Cristo tells the epic tale of Dantès’s imprisonment within the grim Chateau D’If, his eventual escape, and his protracted revenge against the three men who plotted his downfall. We hear the stories of bandits, smugglers, and aristocrats; we’re taken from the southern coast of France to the mountain villages of the Orient to the raucous Roman Carnival. In the process, we’re faced with a challenge to our previously-held notions of good and evil, which are twisted and bent by the story of the Count.

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A depiction of Monte Cristo’s coat of arms (credit M. Gulin)

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Child’s Play

I hadn’t seen an exercise in silliness of this magnitude in a while. The Wall Street Journal blared, on its front page, that “A CHESS NOVICE CHALLENGED MAGNUS CARLSEN. HE HAD ONE MONTH TO TRAIN.” My eyes were already rolling. “You fucking serious?” was the first question I asked. The second one was, “How badly did he lose?”

Badly, it turns out. Self-styled speed-learner Max Deutsch blundered a piece on move 12. It’s not quite a move someone who’s never played chess before would make—but it’s close. In fact, it’s just about the type of move someone who’s played for 30 days would make. By move 14, the game was essentially lost.

Board

On first glance, Max’s 12. Qf3 appears merely useless. But further study reveals that it’s problematic.12….Qh4 threatens a bad attack, which is addressed with 13. h3. But the queen on h4 also looks at d4, a threat which is discovered after 13…Nxe3. To make matters worse, Max recaptures with 14. Qxe3 instead of fxe3, putting him down a whole piece, instead of just a pawn, after 14…Bxd4.

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Alien Languages

The recent movie Arrival treats an imagined arrival on earth by alien beings. The United States government, at a loss to understand the visitors’ intentions, conscripts the film’s hero—unusually for Hollywood, a linguist—to help understand the aliens’ language, and in turn, their purpose.

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The aliens’ language’s “freedom from time” evokes the functional programming language Haskell.

The linguist, Louise Banks, soon makes headway. She discovers that the aliens’ language “has no forward or backward direction” and “is free of time”. Moreover, in a nod to the (unfortunately, all-but discredited) Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—according to which, as Banks suggests, “the language you speak determines how you think and… affects how you see everything”—Banks soon finds her own cognition shifting:

If you learn it, when you really learn it, you begin to perceive time the way that they do, so you can see what’s to come. But time, it isn’t the same for them. It’s non-linear.

Far from inducing an reaction of incredulity and awe, these descriptions of the visitors’ language provoked in me just one persistent response: “This is just like the programming language Haskell.” Continue reading

Poison and Medicine

Anton Chekhov’s short stories tend to feature ordinary characters in commonplace situations. In spite of this, these stories proffer a palpable, though often intangible, profundity. On close inspection, this profundity seems to reflect the fact that Chekhov’s stories, though on their face commonplace, address issues which are deeply philosophical, and which strike upon fundamental questions of human nature. My Wife is no exception.

Middle-ranking official and former engineer Mr. Ansorin is married to Ms. Natalie Ansorin; their marriage has descended into cold indifference marked by only sporadic hostility. They, along with Bragin, a fat, oafish man who was once handsome, and Sable, a friendly country doctor with a taste for good food, and drink, organize a committee aimed at bringing relief to a local village struck by famine. Ansorin, however, encounters a pervasive malaise, which only gets worse as he, a man of means, funds the relief effort.

Ansorin eventually finds that his discomfort stems not from his actions, which are, no doubt, admirable, but from his motives. Continue reading

Art Songs

\begin{array}{l l} \text{Parlo d'amor vegliando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I am doing,} \\ \text{Parlo d'amor sognando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I'm pursuing,} \\ \text{All' acqua, all' ombra, ai monti,} & \text{In sunshine or in showers,} \\ \text{Ai fiori, all' erbe, ai fonti, ...} & \text{At home or midst the flowers, ...} \\ \text{All' ecco---all' aria---a venti,} & \text{I sigh---I pant---I languish,} \\ \text{Che il suon de vani accenti, ...} & \text{In bliss that throbs like anguish, ...} \\ \end{array}

Sung by the pubescent, flirtatious Cherubino (he’s played by a soprano), these words are notable for their arresting meter and rhyme, the heavenly beauty of their melody, and, well, their humor. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro—recently performed fantastically by the Peabody Opera Theater—presents such an explosive combination of theatricality, musicality, and hilarity as to make Mozart come across as a supernatural genius.

Only later did I learn that Mozart did not work alone [1]. The Felix Krull-esque French man-of-the-world Pierre Beaumarchais originally wrote the French play Le Mariage de Figaro in 1784; only then did Lorenzo Da Ponte, an equally fascinating Italian librettist, translate the play into Italian, excise a tirade against inherited nobility (thus making the play acceptable to the censors), and set certain of its passages to meter and rhyme. These developments, finally, prepared the way for Mozart to set music to the entire work, which premiered in 1786. The libretto’s rhymed passages became the opera’s arias.

This realization, in fact, placed Mozart into a long tradition within classical music. Continue reading