Each issue, the editors at Mousse invite a contributor to select a text or a group of texts to be reprinted in the magazine as part of their section “Reprint.” The reprinted work may be an article, a short essay, a piece of narrative, or something else, but the original layout is always kept. The scans are accompanied by a text/introduction by the contributor. I was delighted when they asked me to contribute and enjoyed the selection process enormously. The simple act of choosing a set of things and then writing something that helps to connect them was a productive one for me. My thanks to them for the opportunity, and for making it look great. — RG
Lydia Davis’s compact story “20 Sculptures in One Hour” begins like a word problem from a long-lost math class: “The problem is to see 20 sculptures in one hour.” We wait for more, but that is the entirety of the problem, which is a classic half-empty or half-full scenario — though this one comes with a twist, as it must account not only for perception but for the passage of time. Once the problem is stated, Davis’s prose quickly double-backs on itself, repeating the worry that although “An hour seems like a long time” it also seems like “20 sculptures are a lot of sculptures.” If anxiety can be described as the reflexive condition of worrying about worrying, then you might know where the first part of Davis’s story is heading.
I love Davis’s story all on its own, but I had the desire to stretch it out, to make it last longer, to parse it more closely, to somehow freeze-frame each sentence in motion, like Muybridge’s famous photographic study of a galloping horse. Muybridge’s images were made at the behest of university founder Leland Stanford in order to prove a supposition by French naturalist and early photographer Étienne-Jules Marey that all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground while galloping. With the help of twelve special cameras, Muybridge captured “movements whose speed exceeded the perception of any painter’s eye,” writes Prof. Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, and proved Marey correct.
By 1882 Marey had developed something better than Muybridge’s cameras for recording bodies in motion. Combining Gatling’s mechanized machine gun with a multi-chambered camera developed for capturing the night sky through a telescope, Marey introduced a “chronophotographic gun” that could fire twelve frames per second. “Shooting” film was born.
The chronophotographic gun was soon aimed at one of Marey’s assistants, Georges Demeny, who produced images of himself speaking common phrases in an attempt to understand the motor functions of the face and mouth in producing speech. He used his simulations to teach deaf and mute patients at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The 20 millisecond-long exposures shown here animate Demeny as he speaks a declaration of love, “Je vous aime.”
I decided to start posting a bit more this week after I realized over the weekend that I now have more items saved to recommend to you in the future than all the total items I have previously recommended to you in the past. This is an attempt to balance things out a bit. Realizing I’ve done 20 posts in four days, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Lydia Davis’s fantastic story “20 Sculptures in One Hour” from her collection Varieties of Disturbance (mentioned on L&UL here), which I cannot seem to find online but, believe me, is well worth a read.
Here’s a good snapshot of the super-short story from an interview with Davis:
Lydia: An hour is a long time, but if there are 20 sculptures that you have to look at within an hour, that’s 3 minutes per sculpture, which isn’t a long time at all. And yet, three minutes can end up feeling like a long time…
Interviewer: Sounds like Zeno’s Paradox.
Lydia: I love Zeno’s Paradox!
Now reminded of paradoxes, I’m resolving to make my first post tomorrow (#21, if you’re counting) a long-overdue list of all paradoxes mentioned by Peter Cave on this episode of Philosophy Bites dedicated to the subject. Stay tuned.