Interviewed by Janice Whang
One of the primary pleasures of this essay was how it obsessed over and revered the “back-end” processes and tools of creating, challenging notions of labor and treasure. This essay is a polished “front-end” product that the reader gets to enjoy. Could you speak on one of the mundane, industrial, dirty yet exquisite steps of creating this essay?
I think of its ending—leaving the lab, which is also a workshop, a garage—cycling from the door of my old home in the Netherlands down to the Mediterranean, stopping by the house of my collaborator along the way. That journey was a useful counterweight to the thousands of hours we spent staring at code on a screen. I arrived at my friend’s house, tired and dirty, but mostly happy. There were apocalyptic floods through the north of France. Engineers were worried about bridges over the Seine. I had been cycling, in theory at least, by the Saône—the road often disappeared under water. I too disappeared into wind and rain and mud. Once I reached the valley of the Rhône, it felt like the beginning of the Roman empire: vineyards, yellow houses, columns of sunlight. The rains had passed. I saw a lizard and thought: I am now in the south. None of this is ordered or polished—it is the opposite of what I was trying to achieve in the essay—but I think it has something to do with the garage-end, the wires and gears of any story or adventure.
The structure of this essay reminded me of holding a precious stone in my hand and slowly turning it to see how different facets caught the light, the way it methodically explored the manifestations of single patterns in different settings—the jewelry atelier, patch-clamp lab, computer programming lab, etc.. The poem which this essay is named after, “Piedra de Sol,” also has an interesting structure. Could you speak on how the architecture of the poem “Piedra de Sol” and this essay relate to each other?
“Piedra de Sol” is a poem of 584 lines; this number corresponds with the synodic period of Venus. The first six lines are repeated in the last six lines, so it wheels back to the beginning, creating an infinite loop. I was unaware of its structure when I first listened to Octavio Paz reading it. The poem simply seduced me; the words are sensual, almost corrupt in their beauty—listening to it you can feel yourself drowning in sunlight. The pleasure of the poem is not dependent on any knowledge of its structure. Likewise, you don’t need to know anything about the art of diamond cutting to appreciate a precious stone. Looking at the craftsmanship of the poem after repeated reading and listening, the hendecasyllabic—eleven syllable—lines, which give “Piedra de Sol” its current and flow, seemed comparable to the jewels that I had seen in the workshop that I have tried to describe in the essay. Each line in the poem is a jewel with eleven facets. Remembering the tools in the workshop—the burin, the chisel, the cast-iron disc—I wonder how Octavio Paz labored over this poem. How did he distil his experiences into such a tightly controlled dream? The dream gives no hint of a blueprint; it is simply light-in-a-word—a thing to behold, floating and shimmering in the heat. The essay tries to tease out the links between this effortless flow and the discipline that is needed to hammer out works of art that appear to be perfect and flawless.
Related to this, the way certain principles and patterns reappeared throughout gave me the sense that these tactile tools and repetitive tasks were connected to something vast and universal. What first prompted your desire to blur the lines between surfaces and depths?
Biology. Butterflies often use dishonest signals, called Batesian mimicry, whereby a species that is not poisonous mimics a poisonous species, without having to invest in making the toxins that the “honest” butterfly makes. Depth and surface are a serious business. Butterflies are engaged in chemical warfare. Even for one who has studied these things very carefully, for example a bird, it can be very difficult to distinguish between these honest and dishonest signals.
I was also very happy when I found some evolutionary papers that point to the possible origin of our preference for glittering objects. Precious stones remind us of light shimmering on the surface of flowing water and flowing water is more likely to be free of bacteria and pathogens than stagnant water. So our innate attraction to precious stones may stem, in part, from our origins as sweaty, thirsty animals, keen to find a water source that will not give us diarrhea or dysentery.
The base-pairs of DNA offer yet more keys and open still more trapdoors to windings stairs that descend to who knows what depths. Those base-pairs also bring to mind the even simpler binary code of the internet.
I was admiring how quiet, soothing, and marveling the tone of this essay was when I came across the line “True works of art are almost always discreet and unobtrusive” in a section describing Prince Boris as “an international swindler.” How would you describe the relationship between tone and authenticity in this piece?
Boris is ostentatious; he is employing a form of Batesian mimicry—his signaling is dishonest. Is this innate? Would he have been a swindler without the chaos of the Russian revolution? As a chancer he knows that anything can happen; chance is capricious and unsystematic, but that not very profound insight also leads him to test the hypothesis (perhaps not unreasonable) that if he clicks his fingers he can become Prince Boris I of Andorra. He likes playing at this roulette wheel. Conversely, most of the artisans and scientists that I deal with have little interest in deception. They are like children playing a game. They rarely cheat because they take the game very seriously. You can see it in their eyes; they are genuinely immersed in their work. They study openings and endings exhaustively. They usually abide by the rules. Ultimately, a game played in this way is more beautiful and also more fun.
I would love to have a drink with Boris. Would he be a funny character or a bore? I like to think that he would be entertaining. At the end of his life, after many incredible adventures (it is impossible to know how many were invented) he found himself in the remarkably quiet and peaceful village of Boppard on the banks of the Rhine. After I finished the essay, I found a note in which he calls himself at this last stage of his life a “100% petit rentier”—i.e., someone who lives on an income derived from property and investments; no doubt, imaginary property, imaginary investments. I like to think that this is one last wink before he disappears.
Reading about your different professional experiences makes me wonder how else your career outside of writing has influenced your art. What is the importance of the non-artistic pressures, challenges, and joys in a writer’s life?
A writer can invent any world; he or she can simply make it all up. Unfortunately I don’t have the imaginative power to invent the world of neuroscience, which can sometimes be unbelievable. The world of mountaineering and alpinism is equally fantastic. Neither of these worlds is often called artistic, but I consider certain alpinists and neuroscientists to be artists of the first rank. I think of Bruno Brunod who set a speed record on the Matterhorn in 1995. On a summer day, he climbed to the summit of that mountain as though it was an Escher diagram. Going up looked like going down. He seemed to be utilizing an impossible geometry. An analogue of this kind of geometry can be found in music when a scale climbs continuously and is complete at the point when it begins to descend. Any mistake would have been potentially fatal. He was functioning at an absolute limit of physiology, physics and geometry. I’m not an alpinist but I’ve spent enough time in the mountains to have learned something about this tribe.
There is an echo of this gravity and grace in the best neuroscience, though obviously the consequences of failure are less severe. The pressure of the scientific method can create unusually beautiful results, results that often stray into the hinterland of art and poetry. Almost in a comical way, this can happen despite every effort on the part of the scientist to make the work as dry and desolate as possible. Conversely, I’ve listened on occasion to licensed poets discussing their experiments, and have had the urge to say: Herr Professor! Frau Professor! Look here; there seems to be a crack in your theory. Your discussion bears little resemblance to the results you have shown me. Scientists are wary of making a holy show of themselves, and are distressed when they see others doing so. Alpinists with a tendency towards extravagance or hyperbole usually don’t live to tell the tale. As I see it, the weakness of artists is that they can say things that can’t be proven. Clearly, this is also a strength. Experience in the lab and the mountains underlines the fact that this freedom is a privilege that should be treated with respect.
You also have four poems in this issue of Subtropics! How would you describe the conversation between your poems and this essay?
Two of the poems are straightforward efforts at lyric poetry. One of them might have been an essay. The odd one out is a scrawny fellow that might be a failed short story. In the prologue to In Praise of Darkness, Jorge Luis Borges says that prose and poetry can coexist without discord. He goes further, saying that the differences between prose and poetry are minimal. I agree with him, but only in so far as the prose pieces in that collection never extend much beyond a page. At that length there is still the possibility of concision; the lines can withstand the pressure needed to turn them into poetry. That doesn’t work beyond five or so pages. Perhaps the poems, or at least the lyric poems, are attempts to describe singular experiences that are distilled under pressure, whereas the essay contains all the averaging, error-bars and regression lines that are common and even obligatory for a scientific paper. There may be thousands of points in a scatter plot and I have to carefully choose a statistical model that will draw an idealized—fictional— line through all those points. This brings to mind a funny story. After reading a miniature report that I’d written which attempted to describe my first undergraduate experiments with the (admittedly difficult) patch-clamp technique, a professor asked me why there were no error-bars or standard deviations in any of my graphs. The reason was embarrassingly simple: I had only managed one successful recording. Statistics were impossible because n was equal to one. There was a single datum—I couldn’t even use the word data. I improved a little over the years but it makes me think that a singular experience is not very useful for an essay. After all the word essay is related to a test or a trial. We can generally only trust trials that have a good number of experiments averaged out with the right models. Longitudinal studies are even better and usually more complex. A singular experience is probably only of use for a poem.
I hope that common to both the prose and the poetry there is no intention to convince or persuade. I am not a merchant trying to sell you something. My Argentine friend says that our opinions are the least interesting things about us. I agree but again with a qualification. I’m troubled by the obvious fact that he seems to have formulated an interesting opinion.
A trusted mentor gave me honest advice about where I might draw the line between poetry and prose. He told me that I had stories to tell and that I needed to make decisions about narrative tales and lyric poetry. His advice was useful, and also a little ominous. I don’t think I should outline it here.
After a long journey, I find myself on an island, working by lamplight—so he seems to have been correct. Technique may be everything—“one dies for stress, not from it”—but what I remember now is a moment (neither poetry nor prose) when I was waiting for a lift by the side of a road. The sun was blazing like a hydrogen bomb. I don’t think I had a single professional thought in my head. That moment must have been perfect.