December 28, 2018

Words of the Month - Presupposition Triggers

        In linguistics, a presupposition is something that a particular utterance implies or takes for granted as true.  For example, the classic “When did you stop beating your wife” presupposes that you have beaten your wife at some point.  “Would you like more tea?” presupposes that you have had some tea already.  The word more is a presupposition trigger, and that quality of the word is played with by Lewis Carrol in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
        “Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
        “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
        “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
        Another category of presupposition triggers is factives, which presuppose the truth of the phrase they apply to.  Examples include regret and realize.  It doesn’t matter whether “I regret going to the party” or “I don’t regret going to the party,” regret triggers the presupposition that I did, in fact, go to the party.
        The party, by the way, is a definite, which is its own presupposition trigger, because it assumes the truth that there was, in fact, a party for me to have gone to.  Another example of a definite is when I say that “My brother is coming to visit,” which presupposes that I have a brother.
        Implicative verbs presuppose a necessary precondition for the phrase they apply to.  Some examples are verbs of success or failure, such as, “I have never yet managed to juggle four balls at once.”  Manage presupposes that I have, in fact, tried to juggle four balls at once.  Change-of-state verbs are similar in presupposing that an earlier state existed before it changed.  That’s the famous “When did you stop beating your wife” or “Pandora opened the box,” which triggers the presupposition that the box was closed before her curiosity got the better of her.
        Okay, so this is kind of interesting, but so what?  The strange thing is that people accept the presuppositions they hear, but rarely remember where the knowledge came from.  Some time later you will have it in your head that I have a brother, but you are much less likely to remember how you know it.  Did I tell you?  Did someone else tell you?  Have you actually met him once, perhaps?  The vast majority of the time this works well for communication; it helps us impart information efficiently and interpret speech without excess confusion.  When people converse they follow the rules in good faith, happily triggering and accepting presuppositions that are, in fact, true.  But presuppositions can also be manipulated.  Carroll manipulated our presuppositions for humor, while shady lawyers can manipulate the jury’s presuppositions for dishonest purposes, and politicians and push-pollsters routinely manipulate presuppositions in order to spread lies while claiming that they never actually lied.  This is distressingly effective because of our brains’ oh-so-efficient presupposition shortcuts in absorbing information.
        There is one more place this mental characteristic can be manipulated, but for less nefarious purposes.  This is how writers of mysteries can lead us subtly astray without breaking the rules of Whodunnit Fair Play, thus setting us up to be surprised and delighted by the eventual denouement.  If false information is slipped to us in the form of characters’ presuppositions, we are extremely likely to accept it as true, but then also willing, when the real solution is eventually explained, to accept that we were tricked fair and square.  As a writer I’ve used these techniques all along, but it’s interesting to see it dissected and understand why it works.

[Pictures: A Mad Tea Party, illustration by John Tenniel, wood engraving by Thomas Dalziel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865;
Nothing Could Be Better, illustration by Sidney Paget from The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893.]

December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas!

        Here are a pair of block printed nativity scenes, pretty well spanning the history of block printed nativity scenes.  First is a wood or metal cut from a 1506 book of hours.  The borders at the bottom certainly look more like metal cuts with their background patterns of little white dots on black, but the borders wouldn’t be printed by the same block as the main picture anyway.  The picture looks more like a woodcut, except for the white-spotted black background of the star, so I don’t know.  I think the star is rather clever, incorporated on the architecture so that it can be shining over the Holy Family even while the entire scene is framed in elaborate Gothic architecture.  This particular scene is actually not Christmas night but the arrival of the Three Kings, and I like the way Jospeh has removed his hat and is looking humbly at the kings, while the first king has removed his crown and is humbly adoring the infant.



        Rick Beerhorst’s modern nativity has in common with the sixteenth century one that in both cases the Holy Family are dressed in contemporary clothes rather than attempting to depict the scene in an historical context.  For me, the modern setting, complete with bare lightbulb, serves as a reminder of the humanity of a poor family far from home, doing the best they can to care for their newborn - a story that is happening all over the world right now, every day.  It’s pretty clear that Jesus’s experiences influenced his teachings that we are to welcome the stranger, care for the poor and the lost, and celebrate children.  In honor of Christmas, let’s all try to do a little better at that this year!

[Picture: Three Kings, wood or metal cut print from a Book of Hours printed by Anthoine Verard, 1506 (Image from Les Enluminures);
Untitled nativity, wood block print by Rick Beerhorst (Image from Studio Beerhorst).]

December 20, 2018

Progress Achieved

        …And here are my last two blocks from the flurry of mythical creatures I began carving during the flurry of holiday sales.
        First, the yale/eale, a sort of antelope-like beast whose horns can swivel independently to be pointed wherever the yale deems best.   I framed it in a decorative doorway, since decorative doorways seem to be the yale’s native habitat, as they are primarily heraldic in nature.  The multiple colors were achieved by printing reductively, carving and printing first the gold layer, then carving further and printing again with black.  You can see the earlier stage here.
        Second, the pterippus/Pegasus.  (Pegasus is the most famous individual, whose name should not properly be the general term for all winged horses, but commonly is.  As for pterippus, the “proper” word for a winged horse in general, I suspect that it is a
modern coining, although I cannot find data to prove or disprove this.)  The multiple colors here were made by arranging multiple inks on the plate and rolling the block with an ombre mix of ink.  That’s what made it so dang difficult to print: to keep the colors arranged in order and not mix all the ink into one uniform mush, you can roll it out in one orientation only, horizontally and never vertically.  Normally you roll both horizontally and vertically in order to spread the ink more smoothly and evenly, and make sure every part of the block gets evenly inked.  Not being able to do that just means that the block is more likely to be inked unevenly and therefore not print well.  Moreover, my block was seven inches tall and my brayers are about 5.75 inches across, so I couldn’t ink with one swoosh.  I had to use two brayers and ink the bottom of the block with one and the top with the other, thus giving yet another opportunity for inking not to come out perfectly.  In the end I must have tried more than 40 times in order to get an edition of 12 with which I was satisfied.  (Earlier attempts mentioned here.)  I could have just given up and printed it a solid color, of course, but I really liked the look of the ombre suggesting moving from the earth up into the sky.  I hope you like it, too!

[Pictures: Yale, reduction print by AEGN, 2018;
First Flight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

December 14, 2018

Continuing Progress

        I finally got a chance for some printing today, and went a little crazy, printing four blocks.  I made the following progress on the pieces I introduced last week:
        1. second and final layer of the umbrellaphant.  I’m quite pleased with this one!  Previously I had identified two species of umbrellaphant, the tusk-umbelled and the trunk-umbelled.  This one is clearly a third species, the auricle-umbelled umbrellaphant.  I feel quite clever for the way in which the two layers of ink seem to work well together whether they are perfectly aligned or not.
        2. capybureau.  This one did not print well, so it’s lucky I planned to do only a small edition anyway.   I don’t know whether the problem was the rubber or the ink, but oddly, the ink didn’t seem to want to stick to the rubber, which was strange, mysterious, and frustrating.  I washed the block and started again three times, which seems like a lot of work for a creature that, while I happen to think it’s charming, I don’t expect to be a huge seller!
        3.  sloth.  As opposed to the capybureau, I think this one will be popular, and since it’s small and will be inexpensive, I made a large edition (of 14.  That’s large, for me!)  You can see it here.
        4. first layer of the eale/yale.  As opposed to the capybureau, this one printed cleanly and easily, although of course in the first round it’s always a little hard to tell whether everything is actually perfect.  I also started the second round of carving, so hopefully I’ll finish this one some time next week.
        Some time next week I will also try reprinting the pterippus/pegasus which I was so frustrated with last time.  And that may well finish up my printing for the year, because next I should probably turn to preparations for my exhibit that is to be hung on January 2.  (Not to mention my preparations for Christmas!)

[Pictures: Umbrellaphant, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2018;
Capybureau, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018;
Yale, first state, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

December 11, 2018

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

        “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is the earliest known story of a castaway on a magical island, dating from some time around 2000-1800 BCE, during the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt.  It includes many of the elements that are very familiar from a host of legends and folktales of the same type: it is framed as a tale within a tale, related by one man to encourage another.  The man (whom the story itself never actually calls a sailor) is thrown off course by a storm, shipwrecked, and is the only one from the boat to survive.  On the island he finds every kind of food in superabundance.   After three days he encounters a monstrous, magical serpent, who takes him back to his (the serpent’s) palace and hears his adventure.  The serpent then recounts a short tale of his own.  The serpent foretells that another ship will arrive and the castaway will return home safely.  The castaway promises to send the serpent gifts fit for a god, but the serpent smiles and points out that he already has fantastic wealth, and besides, once the castaway departs, the island will disappear so that he will never see it again.  When the ship arrives as predicted, the serpent loads the castaway with precious gifts and sends him home to a life of honor.  All of these plot points and story elements are archetypal, and I’m sure the self-proclaimed cunning-fingered scribe Amny son of Amen wasn’t the first to tell a tale like this, but it is interesting to see in it the roots of so many of the elements that have comprised a good fantasy traveller’s tale ever since.
        You can read one translation of the story in its entirety here, and another here.  In addition to the archetypal story elements I related above, there are some interesting details in this particular story.  The arrival of the serpent is excellent: I heard a sound as of thunder, which I thought to be caused by a wave of the sea, and the trees rocked and the earth quaked, and I covered my face. And I found that a serpent was coming towards me. It was thirty cubits (45 feet) in length, and its beard was more than two cubits in length, and its body was covered with scales of gold, and the two ridges over its eyes were of pure lapis-lazuli; and it coiled its whole length up before me.  Also, the serpent’s own tale is quite strange, regarding the destruction of all his 75 siblings and children, including a mysterious girl brought to him by prayer or chance, by a falling star which burnt them all to death while the serpent was away.
        Keep in mind that translating ancient Egyptian is not without its controversies, and there are variations in the details of different versions.  Nevertheless, it is clear to see that four thousand years ago humans were telling some of the same stories with some of the same themes of adventure, mystery, and wonder.  Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun, but maybe there are reasons we keep coming back to the same themes.

[Pictures: The Inquiry, illustration by Tristram Ellis from Egyptian Tales, 1899 (Image - and yet another translation -  from Project Gutenberg);
A page of the original Hieratic text of The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, “Papyrus Leningrad 1115” (Image from here).]

December 7, 2018

In Progress

        To my dismay, Life has been Happening a little too urgently recently, and the blog is low enough down the list of priorities that it’s falling right off the bottom.  However, tomorrow I will be at the Needham Winter Arts Festival, so be sure to come check it out if you’re local!  Then Sunday is booked solid and double-booked, and Monday’s going to be pretty crazy, as well… but after that I very much hope that things will settle down!  In the meantime, I am making a steady crop of new blocks which I carve as I sit at all my shows in the past few weeks.  So here’s a little view of what’s been happening: mostly more and more fantasy creatures.
Top left - a design for a eale, aka yale, now finished sketching and transferred to rubber to carve tomorrow.  (At least, I will carve the first round, as it will be a two-layer reduction print.)
Top right - umbrellaphant block, which will also be a two-layer reduction.  I printed the first color yesterday so that I can carve the second round tomorrow.
Center - capybureau, carved but not yet printed.
Bottom left - pterippus, aka pegasus, carved and attempted to print.  I printed more than 20 and not a single one was really good, which was extremely frustrating.  I will have to try again later.
Bottom right - some first sketches of a possible bunyip.  I don’t know when or whether I’ll get to this guy.  I think he’s pretty cute, but what to do with him?  Is he just going to sit there?  Or does he need a background?  Or what will make him sufficiently interesting that anyone should care?
        In addition I have some ideas for two more possible small blocks which are not fantasy creatures.  One or both may even be mini blocks, which means they won’t provide me with an awful lot of carving.  Nevertheless, I plan to finish up the designs tonight to carve tomorrow.  I hope all this will be enough.  If I had more inspiration for the bunyip, I’d definitely do that one, too, but at the moment inspiration feels a little beyond my present capabilities, so I’ll have to stick with just getting to work!

[Picture: photo of various blocks and sketches by AEGN, 2018.]