Thursday, August 21, 2008

First Live Citation

On Monday appeared my paper written with He and Lukas, entitled "An Abundance of Heterotic Vacua" [I tried to put forth something more irreverent like "Get Your Fill of Heterotic Vacua," playing on the full/empty contradiction, or "Heterotic Bundles All Over the Place," to convey the image of some kind of orgy, but some of my collaborators were not so hot about it...]. Given that Ron Donagi was giving a talk on Tuesday at Strings 08 about "Heterotic Standard Models," the eventuality that he would mention our paper was non-negligible. Indeed, his last slide contained a reference that slightly differed from the other by its typography, indicating its late addition. It was just cryptically reading: "[GHL]." Ron undertook to enumerate the authors: "He, Lukas, and... [I was getting excited]... errmmm... I can't remember, never mind."

Great! Thanks Ron! Two thumbs up! :-P
So close to my first live citation, and yet so far...

However I got my revenge today, during Hermann Verlinde's talk on "Holographic Gauge Mediation." I arrived late to that talk because I had already heard it at Eurostrings, so I wasn't following with great attention. I suddenly woke up when I saw my name on the screen: "cf. Gabella, Gherghetta, Giedt." My first paper from my Master project in Minneapolis!

That was a pleasant feeling to have the impression to participate to a collective research effort. (My joy was soon to be a bit tempered by the fact that he then kept referring to us as "some phenomenologists" (in which he wasn't completely wrong, I have to confess...)).

Linde's speech at Strings 08 banquet

The task of entertaining the audience at the end of the Strings 08 banquet at UniMail was accomplished with spirit by Andrei Linde. He started by saying that he was going to make a discourse in the Georgian-Russian fashion, but maybe it was not appropriate... He said that after our visit at the United Nations on Monday, he was seeing two goals of utmost importance: 1). world peace, and 2). experimental evidence for string theory.

Given that we live in an expanding universe, in a few billion years the galaxies will be beyond each other's horizon, and so there will be no intergalactic war any more. First problem solved.

He addressed the second problem with a succession of anecdotes from various famous physicists. One of them was about a Russian scientist (something in Z... I forgot) that once told physicists which were discouraged by the absence of experimental evidences in favour of baryon asymmetry that the fact that parallel lines do not intersect was actually an evidence (he quickly explained what he meant but I couldn't get it). "That is another type of evidence," Andrei said.

Then he talked about Murray Gell-Mann who asked one of his students to measure the height of a tower with a barometer. One week later the student came back and said that he had found three ways of doing it: The first option was to go to the top of the tower, attach a rope to the barometer, slide it down, and then measure the length of the rope. "Myeaaah. What is the second way?" Murray asked. The second option was to go to the top of the tower, throw the barometer down, and count the time it takes to reach the ground. "That is not really what I expected..." The student's third way was to go to the superintendent and tell him: "This barometer is worth about 30 €. It is yours if you tell me the height of the tower."

Andrei's point was that in order to get evidence for string theory, we need to use the barometer in a clever way (measuring the pressure difference at the top and bottom of the tower). There
is no straightforward way to do it (like the first two solutions of the naive student), and all the superintendents left the universe about 13.7 billion years ago (that is, at its creation).

And this clever way is to think about dolphins (not fishes: dolphins!). Dolphins live in water because it is the place where they can live, just as we live on the ground because we can live here. The tiny value of the cosmological constant can be explained in this way, but only at the condition that there exist a huge number of possible universes with different values of it. (Huge as in 10^500, which journalists, as they cannot typeset exponents, write as 10,500... "Anyway: big number.") Yes: anthropic reasoning. [I thought about David Gross at that point, who certainly won't miss on Friday to repeat his warning of last year's conference in Madrid: "Do not give up!"]

Andrei ended his discourse by saying that he could have proposed a toast for the LHC, the biggest machine ever built -- but that would have been too banal. Then for string theory -- not surprising enough. He had to be surprising (Georgian-Russian style!). He finally drank a toast to "You, the people that are making string theory, because we enjoy working together and learning." I found this apparition of a human, relational factor indeed quite surprising in such a context (although it would have been completely trivial in many other contexts).

In summary, Andrei's discourse operated two shifts:
  • A shift from the dream of a unique and unambiguous explanation of everything to the acknowledgement of the relevance of environmental determination.
  • A shift from a machine or a theory to mutual enjoyment.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Baroque Bach

Only once in his lifetime did Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) pose for a painter but it is known that, being a busy man, he actually left the workshop before the end of the session! So even though Haussmann's painting (1748, right) is the best we have, it remains very unreliable. This could have been the end of Bach's iconography, but it is not. In 1895 Bach's body was exhumed, and a sculpture made from his skull (below; recently, a Scottish anthropologist made a computer-modeled reproduction of Bach's bust, shown on the right below).

Imagine that: you come out of your mother's womb, you do your thing, you die. So far so good. But 145 years after your burial, someone removes your body from your grave in Leipzig to look at the shape of your skull and try to figure out what you might have looked like during your time! You'd agree that would be surprising.

But in fact, in the case of Bach, there was a catch: when I said he did his thing, that would be an euphemism to say that was an euphemism. After his death, even though he never thought his music would survive him, but rather that other composers will simply replace it by their own compositions, he came to be considered as the greatest composer that ever lived by such people as Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Debussy, etc.

Bach's musical involvement was absolutely permanent. Jack Gibbons (the pianist-lecturer of that evening) used the -- somewhat dubious -- image that if you were to copy every note he's ever written, you wouldn't achieve it in your lifetime ("Think about it for a minute," he added with humour). Bach must have been mostly writing in one throw, without any correction. Add to this his numerous administrative duties (he even had to teach Latin during his last position in Leipzig, where he was taken only as a third choice!), his immense family of twenty or so children, and you have the picture of an extremely productive composer sleeping barely a couple of hours every night.

Bach's family was so musical that they had it in their blood: a usual Sunday afternoon leisure was to improvise fugues on popular themes, an very technical exercise! (The last of the Goldberg Variations is an illustration of these "games.") The word "Bach" was practically a synonym for "Musiker" (By the way, the equivalence in England was the Gibbons family -- and Jack Gibbons to add that it is not known if there are any living descendants nowadays... (I can think of Beth Gibbons at least.))

I've admired the effects of such a pure dedication to music in a documentary about Ravi Shankar. I had been struck by the fact that most (if not all?) of his children decided to become musicians (his daughter Anoushka Shankar who plays the sitar too, and also of course Norah Jones). The intensity of his passion was powerful enough to diffuse to his children. The documentary had a magical scene where he gives a concert with Anoushka and during his solo you can see her face illuminating by delight and surprise.

[There I saw the beauty of the (rather old-fashioned) tradition of a family business: the son of the baker become a baker and so on. It is sad if this continuation is due to some kind of inertia, but it can also be due to a sincere love of work, a proudness and joy of creation, which acts as a positive force (rather than a negative constraint) on successive generations... The example of Ravi Shankar is less ambiguous here, as his own parents were not musicians, so that the choice of becoming musician was less automatic than in Bach's family.]

Bach's first wife died as he was on a trip, and he found her buried when he came back. He was however to find love again in Anna Magdalena, which was 17 years younger than him. They had a very joyful marriage, as JG illustrated by playing one of the French Suites, if I remember correctly. He said Anna was also an accomplished musician (which is a bit in contradiction with the technical ease of the Notebüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach...). Their passion for music was so fusional that Anna ended up having the same handwriting than her husband, for the greatest confusion of modern musicologists.

The second part of the lecture-concert was devoted to the famous Goldberg Variations (1741). Bach composed them by the request of a Russian Ambassador, Count Kaiserling, who wanted to be distracted during his long nights of insomnia. Goldberg was the name of the Count's personal musician (his Hi-Fi set in some sense), who must have damned Bach every time he had to get up in the middle of the night to play those amazingly hard variations. It is fascinating to imagine the sleepless Count meditating on the infinite depths of the Variations in the darkness of his luxurious room...

Bach died of the sequels of disastrous eye surgery operations. As his blindness was keeping him away from his work, he decided to precipitate a second operation very shortly after the failure of the first. Several months later, he suddenly recovered his full vision for a few hours and then died.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chat-brole, True/Faux, God::Art !

A note about the French Nouvelle Vague.

In Paris of the late 50's, a group of film critics from the famous Cahiers du Cinéma decided that it was about time to revolutionize the way of making movies. The most prominent ones among them were Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. They were the kind of guys that could watch ten movies and read ten books every week (specially JLG in fact); that could love american movies and pop culture religiously but stand up in the middle of an academic movie to say "C'est de la merde!" (again, JLG). And so they went on shooting four or five movies every year (yes, mostly JLG).

My point tonight is that I've been watching a few movies by Truffaut (Jules et Jim (1962)) and Chabrol (La Rupture (1970), Poulet au Vinaigre (1985), Les Noces Rouges (1973)), and I really cannot put them on the same level than the Godard's masterpieces such as A Bout de Souffle (1960) and Pierrot le Fou (1965). I find them unquestionably inferior.

Take Jules and Jim: it seems to me that it is nothing else but the work of someone who is very much willing to overcome old-fashioned ways of conceiving existence, but that is unfortunately unable to come up with something fresh and interesting to replace them, and ends up reproducing them in a transvestite way. (A bit like a rebellious kid who cannot go beyond his anger at his parents is doomed to recreate what he hates in them so much...)
Also, I could find a lot of cinematographic ideas that have been properly stolen from A Bout de Souffle. For example, Jeanne Moreau is saying at one point "Avant de vous connaître je ne riais jamais. J'étais comme ça..." and she makes faces that are frozen on the screen for a few seconds each time. It is of course directly inspired by the sequence of ABdS in which Jean-Paul Belmondo is looking at his face in the mirror and takes various exaggerated expressions...

Also, the supposedly "tragically beautiful" ending, is just stupid, pointless, and nihilist in comparison to ABdS's ending. At least, when Godard goes into tragic, he does it with the pinch of ironic ambiguity necessary to make it more than the banal expression of an existential mal-être: Lying on the street mortally wounded by the police, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) mumbles something like "chvraiment dégueulasse" ('mreally disgusting), and dies. But Patricia the American did not get it, and a man interprets (freely) what Michel said: "Il a dit: vous êtes vraiment une dégueulasse!" She looks inside the camera and says: "Qu'est-ce que c'est, dégueulasse?" FIN.
Alive, Michel and Patricia couldn't understand each other ("Je te parlais de moi, et toi tu me parlais de toi; alors que j'aurais dû parler de toi, et toi de moi..."), and death comes not as a resolution to this tension (like some kind of electric earthing), but on the contrary it comes to exacerbate the misunderstanding: his mea culpa degenerating into an accusation, and the very meaning of the words vanishing into interrogation dots... FIN.

In my sense, Truffaut takes himself way too seriously. He seems to believe that there is something edifying in the portrayal of a pathetic surrender to fatality. Godard knows that just the contrary is true: "La morrt ne peut jamais zêtrre une solution!" (Fritz Lang in Le Mépris (1963)). The passionate suicide at the end of Pierrot le Fou transcends the personal misery of Ferdinand by resorting to ancestral quasi-tribal (shamanic!) rituals: he paints his face in blue, and wraps it with a first layer of yellow dynamites and then a second of red dynamites. He climbs to the highest mountain, lights the wick, but suddenly realizes: "Après tout, chuis con! Merde, merde..." Too late: Boum! By going through the immemorial ceremonials that symbolize the travel to the other world, this individual comes to a more global perception of his life, and understand how it can still be preserved in this wider context. (Or is it just me being silly?)

[Here you might think: But hey, you were fustigating Truffaut for reproducing old values, and now you make the apology of Godard for going back to ancestral paganism?! And you would be right; in some sense. But I'd say that although I find it pretty sad to bluntly copy what the previous generation was used to do, recreating the magical actions that must have been going on inside prehistoric tribes where the collective unconscious has its roots is damn fine with me!]

I have also been rather disappointed by Chabrol, which I nevertheless learned to love through movies like Le Boucher (1970), another one in which Isabelle Huppert savagely murders an entire bourgeois family (La Cérémonie (1995)), and also some of his latest movies like Merci pour le Chocolat (2000) (even though I left the first time I saw it at an open-air cinema. I remember being deeply moved when, after the final rape/murder scene, the old auntie who killed both her parents with impunity in her youth says to her niece: "Le temps n'existe pas ma chérie. C'est un présent perpétuel"...).
La Rupture is kind of interesting, but again there is a very simplistic portrayal of the society, with the bad rich guys that want to crush the weaker ones, the nymphomaniac, the old ladies, etc. The only fascinating scene is the LSD deus ex machina at the end (but it comes a bit too late to be visionary, 1968 is already behind...). Les Noces Rouges is quite nicer, and almost brings Chabrol's redemption, as it could be seen as a satire of the fake adventurousness of bourgeois lovers, which can bring themselves to kill the weak wife and the strong (decidedly too modern) husband, but not to conceive that they could have just left their beloved little town altogether instead... The last image is a close-up of their handkerchiefs as we hear the voice of the commissioner who just arrested them ask them: "But I don't understand: Why didn't you simply leave?" - "Leave?? ... No, we never thought about leaving." All they could think about was to change this or that disturbing detail in their usual picture, but to start afresh with an entirely new canvas was just inconceivable...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Unbelievable Franz Liszt

So I went to one of the conferences-concerts given by the pianist Jack Gibbons the other day, and that one was about Franz Liszt (1811-1886). He started by saying that if someone was ever to make a movie about Liszt's life, and keep to the facts with the highest strictness, then he would indefectibly be accused of exaggeration. Nice image - though not so original of course (unlike the 1841 daguerreotype above).

But first a word on the pianist-lecturer. Born in 1962, Gibbons apparently started to play piano at 10 but already at the age of 15 he was giving his first professional performance. And in fact it was in that very same Holywell Music Room ("the first purpose-built concert hall in the world" (1748)), with that very same Sonata in B minor by Liszt, on which he ended that night! It was very touching to see this (I wouldn't say old, let's say mature) pianist come back to the exact same circumstances in which everything began for him (even more so by taking into account that in 2001 he almost died in a car accident). He recorded many CDs and is a world-authority on Gershwin.

So that night he played about ten pieces by Liszt and told stories about his life between them. Here is what I recall:

Liszt, just like Mozart before him, was a child prodigy, and him tour the entire world with his father, amassing a huge fortune that was to ensure his wealth until the end of his life. He had such a magnetic personality that people treated him as a rock star, collecting his cigar stubs and glasses he'd drunk in. Beethoven himself was so impressed by his playing that he came on stage to kiss him - although by the time he was already profoundly deaf... Liszt was the first pianist to give concerts alone, without any other musicians, and the word piano "recitals" was coined after his kind of performances. His concerts were actually quite free, as he often stopped his playing to start chatting with members of the audience for a while. He also had a number of tricks that he loved to play on the audience: for instance he would engage in an impossibly fast Tarantella, which, at the precise instant where he couldn't possibly finish what he had started, he would suddenly interrupt to rescue a lady in the first row (his accomplice) that had fainted (the day the lady forgot to faint at his signal, he had no other option than to faint himself...).

During his youth (and after) he was perpetually falling in love with ladies and religions, that he feverishly worshiped one after the other. He was both deeply romantic and religious.
He was to find his soul mate at 36 in the person of the immensely rich Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (any connection to Ludwig?). She persuaded him to dedicate himself to composition, and he entered the second phase of his life, much darker and tempered by doubts. In spite of all their efforts, Rome would not allow Carolyne's divorce, which would eventually lead her into madness: she locked herself into a cell, smoked obsessively, and produced a 24-volumes critics of the catholic church...

Liszt's compositions did not receive a warm welcome; he was eclipsed by the genius of his son-in-law Richard Wagner. He considered it a duty to teach everything he learned about piano, and never charged any of his numerous students. He was so generous that he gave money to his friends until he consumed his entire fortune. He died ruined, alone and insecure.

Among the most admirable pieces played by Gibbons that night were Funérailles, written a few days after Chopin's death in 1849, which begins by an astonishing repetitive sound of funeral bell; Nuages Gris, a premonition of Debussy's impressionism; and of course the most famous Sonata in B minor, basically constructed around four small musical ideas.
Liszt is also well-known for having transposed a lot of other composers pieces, and for his first bis Gibbons chose a transcription of Schumann (the second bis was his own composition, apparently to make sure that it would be the last...).

I was hoping that he would also play the transcription of Bach's Prelude BWV 543, that Yvonne Lefèbure played so gorgeously well, but that didn't happen. Maybe at Gibbons' next conference-concert on Bach this Wednesday!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Le Père Goriot

Le Père Goriot, publié en 1835, est souvent considéré comme la première concrétisation des intentions de Balzac de composer sa Comédie Humaine (appelée d'abord plus crument Etudes Sociales), un ensemble de récits décrivant la société de son temps à travers une panoplie de personnages récurrents.
L'origine de l'intrigue trouve sa source dans une brève note télégraphique dans son album:

"Un brave homme - pension bourgeoise - 600 F de rentes - s'étant dépouillé pour ses fille qui, toutes deux, ont 50 000 F de rentes - mourant comme un chien."

A ce stade, il était encore loin du chef d'oeuvre achevé, mais bref l'essence est là. (Je trouve très émouvant de voir l'idée littéraire de Père Goriot dans un état de telle concision, comme d'admirer la petitesse de la graine qui a donné naissance à un immense arbre...)

Les dernières pages du livre, qui décrivent la lente mort du Père Goriot et les désistements de ses filles, m'ont profondément touché; la dernière phrase m'a cependant laissé songeur.

"(...) Le jour tombait, un humide crépuscule agaçait les nerfs, il regarda la tombe et y ensevelit sa dernière larme de jeune homme, cette larme arrachée par les saintes émotions d'un coeur pur, une de ces larmes qui, de la terre où elles tombent, rejaillissent jusque dans les cieux. Il se croisa les bras, contempla les nuages, et, le voyant ainsi, Christophe le quitta.

Rastignac, resté seul, fit quelques pas vers le haut du cimetière et vit Paris tortueusement couché le long des deux rives de la Seine où commençaient à briller les lumières. Ses yeux s'attachèrent presque avidement entre la colonne de la place Vendôme et le dôme des Invalides, là où vivait ce beau monde dans lequel il avait voulu pénétrer. Il lança sur cette ruche bourdonnante un regard qui semblait par avance en pomper le miel, et dit ces mots grandioses: "A nous deux maintenant!"

Et pour premier acte du défi qu'il portait à la Société, Rastignac alla dîner chez madame de Nucingen. "

J'ai d'abord été déstabilisé par cette pirouette finale, de laquelle je ne parvenais à tirer aucun sens: comment Eugène irait-il tranquillement dîner chez une des filles de Goriot (de laquelle il était amoureux) après une pareille tragédie? Soit il lui en veut terriblement de ne pas s'être montrée à l'enterrement et il y va pour lui faire des reproches, soit il s'avère qu'elle était dans l'impossibilité absolue de s'y rendre et il y va pour partager sa tristesse déchirante. Mais en aucune façon ne paraît-il pouvoir s'agir d'un "dîner" ce soir-là!

J'ai lu dans la préface notamment que cette dernière phrase témoigne de l'arrivisme d'Eugène. Ses sentiments provoqués par la mort de Goriot seraient bien vite évacués en faveur de sa volonté de pouvoir social. Je rejette cette interprétation, je crois ses émotions sincères, et l'emploi du plus que parfait ("avait voulu") indique bien que ses ambitions sociales ne le tourmentent plus.

Ce à quoi j'aboutis est qu'Eugène entreprend désormais de détruire la "Société" de l'intérieur, faisant siens les principes du forçat Vautrin. Il se lance dans une guerre vengeresse contre elle non pas de but en blanc, ce qui serait désespéré, mais en s'y infiltrant comme un virus pour la pourrir.

Cette méthode me paraît d'une efficacité douteuse... Je découvre un Balzac bien plus radical et belliqueux que je ne l'avais imaginé. Une telle hargne destructrice me fait venir à l'esprit (sans nuances) quelques autres défricheurs sans merci comme le Marquis de Sade, Stirner, Schopenhauer, et consorts. J'estime ces auteurs, j'apprécie la nécessité de leur oeuvres dévastatrices, mais enfin après tout, je ne peux pas en rester là. Je me pose la question: Une fois la mauvaise herbe ratiboisée, que comptez-vous planter Messieurs? Quelles nouvelles valeurs inventez-vous pour remplacer les déchéances?

Ce n'est pas que je veuille sous-entendre "Vous n'avez rien de mieux à proposer, donc ne touchez à rien!", ce n'est pas ça. Au contraire, comme je l'ai dit, j'applaudis tous les dégâts qu'ils ont pu faire. Seulement, s'arrêter là, au creux de la phase destructrice, et ne pas envisager comment recréer du relief à nouveau, ça me paraît un peu court.
A première vue.

A mieux y regarder, je me demande si je ne suis pas un peu trop positiviste sur ce coup-là. N'est-ce pas naïf d'imaginer qu'on puisse, comme ça, débarquer avec des nouvelles valeurs fraîchement moulues, et en faire offrande à la communauté pour la plus grande félicité? Ca ressemble suspicieusement à un des buts les plus niais des doctrines religieuses...

Question: Balzac ne propose-t-il vraiment rien comme alternative à l'hypocrisie de la haute société parisienne?

Autre question: A supposer que c'était le cas, en se contentant de peindre ce qu'elle a d'inacceptable, n'induirait-il pas tout de même chez le lecteur la volonté de se détacher de ses façons odieuses, et donc d'en embrasser de nouvelles?

A la première question je répondrais qu'il est possible que Balzac veuille promouvoir des attitudes courageuses et solidaires, comme celles d'Eugène et de l'étudiant en médecine Bianchon au chevet de Goriot agonisant (ou celle de Mme de Beauséant). Sans doute oppose-t-il la sincérité à la superficialité vénale, mais tout le monde est d'accord là-dessus, non, si?

La seconde question me plaît bien. J'aime l'idée qu'il suffise de décrire quelque chose, de la mettre sous les feux de la conscience, pour fournir à la fois le pouvoir de la faire changer. Je reviendrai sans doute sur cette idée et ses nombreux avatars.

Je termine cette note confuse sur une réplique de Rastignac qui m'a particulièrement surpris:

"(...) Les deux étudiants, frappés de ce terrible éclat d'une force de sentiment qui survivait à la pensée, laissèrent tomber chacun des larmes chaudes sur le moribond qui jeta un cri de plaisir aigu.
- Nasie ! Fifine ! dit-il.
- Il vit encore, dit Bianchon.
- A quoi ça lui sert-il ? dit Sylvie.
- A souffrir, répondit Rastignac."

Souffrance et joie ne s'opposent pas, et enrichissent. Mais ça, les servantes qui aspirent au bonheur monolithique ne peuvent pas le concevoir.