The Doors of Perception
An interview with the poet Daniel Nadler
October 2, 2014
Oct 2, 2014
22 Min read time
An interview with poet Daniel Nadler
Daniel Nadler is several people at once. One of them is co-creator of Sigmund, a popular iPhone app he conceived of and co-designed a few years ago while a PhD student at Harvard. (What does Sigmund do? It lets you program your dreams.) Another is the maverick cofounder and CEO of Kensho Technologies, a highly successful Cambridge-based company that develops analytics tools for Wall Street. This Daniel Nadler was recently profiled in Forbes. Yet another is a poet of unusual focus, ambition, and ability. This Daniel Nadler has finished a manuscript called The Lacunae, a sequence of short, startling poems said to be imagined translations from three ancient Indian languages. I conducted the following interview with this Daniel Nadler, the poet, via email this summer.
Timothy Donnelly: These fifteen poems come from The Lacunae, your book-length manuscript of “imagined translations” from Sanskrit, Old Tamil, and Maharastri Prakrit. How did this project first occur to you?
Daniel Nadler: I was in Saint Lucia, writing poems about very elemental things—fish and stars and palm leaves and the sea—and wanted to do so ahistorically, not in dialogue with the canon, not in dialogue with the last several thousand years of literary history, during which a rose or a fish has taken on symbolic meaning such that when you come across those things in a poem today, you are torn between walking through the museum of symbolism that has been dedicated to each of those things, and actually smelling them and seeing them and touching them.
If you notice that in certain lights, especially near the twilight, the sea—or maybe it is the light reflecting off the algae—takes on a darkish red hue, like the color of wine. . . . well you can’t just go and describe that as the “wine-dark sea.” Homer already claimed that insight, and even if, thousands of years later, it is still actually that color, now it would no longer be an insight but rather an allusion to Homer. And even though it could be that were you and Homer living at the exact same time, standing on the edge of the same shore, looking at the sea as human beings, you would remark the same thing, have the same insight about some aesthetic aspect of the physical world before you. . . . well, you didn’t live at the same time, he came first, so now it is his insight, and only your literary reference.
So imagined translations became my response to the frustration with how being situated in time—in history, to be specific—changes our encounter with the unchanging elements of the physical, natural world—or at least the ways in which we describe these encounters as more and more insights become “claimed,” and afterwards can only be “referenced.” That’s how intellectual property law works. I don’t think poetry should devolve into intellectual property law, or that the color of the sea is Homer’s or any one human being’s insight to the extent that it becomes their literary property. Imagined translations (the conceit of reading “translations” of ancient poems that were never in fact written) are my solution to that, for the reader, and myself, to circumvent these issues and deal directly with the color of the sea—even if it is, after all, in certain twilights, the color of wine.
TD: I wonder what troubles you more—that our experience of the natural world has become increasingly cluttered with, and distorted by, trademarks and hyperlinks and footnotes, or that our experience of poetry has? I mean, what are you trying to get back to, or to put us in touch with—a way of seeing the sea without the interference of Homer, or a way of writing, or of reading, poetry free of the accumulated noise of its tradition?
DN: Both, and of course, they interact. Our experience of the natural world, the way we see it, has become distorted by the interference of language and literature because we are a species that needs metaphors and linguistic constructs as cognitive shortcuts—not just to speaking and communicating, but to seeing itself. “The wine-dark sea” is a cognitive-perceptive shortcut, a doorframe of perception which achieves efficiency by categorizing what would be an otherwise overwhelming, immediate, raw experience, and slotting it into a pre-formulated emotional-psychological-historical-social register.
I don’t think poetry should devolve into intellectual property law, that the color of the sea is anyone's literary property.
One solution to this, as Huxley proposed in The Doors of Perception, is extremely powerful psychoactive drugs that temporarily shatter these (in great part linguistic) doors of perception and allow you to stare at a flower for an eternity and to see its texture and immediacy and transcendental being-in-the-world—precisely because the drugs short-circuited your ability to see something on a table formed and shaped roughly like a flower, have your neocortex match it to the linguistic construct “flower,” have your memory chime in with “Your wife likes roses,” then have your frontal lobe, now in full cerebral chorus, chime in “You should get her some on your way home from work,” and so on. This is an efficient way to go through the world, perfected over millions of years of evolution that sought neuro-energy efficiency maximization, but much is lost and does not squeeze through the doors of perception—glancingly noticing on a table a green stick with a little red frozen explosion on the top which is—soft? And? . . . there is no “and” . . . in nature there is no “and” . . . and these cognitive shortcuts and instantaneous linguistic classification systems are also what allow us to be easily beguiled by phrases like “War on Terror”—we don’t naturally ask whether those abstract nouns (“flower,” “War on Terror”) correspond to fixed things that are actually achieving translation through language, or even to reified phenomena in the natural world. This is inextricably related to the fact that language and literature have become cluttered with, and distorted by, hyperlinks and footnotes—linguistic-neurological efficiency leads to sloppiness, and metaphors become tents, under which anything can be placed, often without people even noticing the shell game being played.
Borges pointed out that the word “threat,” which of course now is an abstract noun-tent under which anything can be placed, began in Old English as þreat, which in the first version of Beowulf meant “an angry crowd”—only and specifically. To apply the word to anything else was a poeticization and a metaphor—to call a storm a threat was to be a poet using a simile, likening the way wind forms to the way an angry crowd forms. At which point the word—threat—was still a felt metaphor, which means it could also still be a “good” metaphor or a “bad” metaphor. In still seeing the concrete visual association and strong meaning of a threat—an angry crowd—we can feel the beautiful fractal affinities that crisscross all of nature when a poet likens the winds gathering in a storm to the way an angry mob forms by calling the former a threat—but when a modern weatherman calls a hurricane off the coast of Florida a threat, all of that is lost—“the grinding water and the gasping wind” that is even like the sound of the gathering of a mob is lost—and the viewer at home blinks and perhaps thinks, “The hurricane is a threat, I shall go board my windows against nature.” That’s probably the more efficient reaction from an evolutionary perspective, but linguistic evolution, which is inextricable from linguistic abstraction and ultimately linguistic sloppiness, operates precisely to intermediate our experience of nature—it encourages a defensive and evasive relationship with the world instead of openness to it.
TD: Right, and for quite some time, at least since Rimbaud, poetry has explicitly conceived of itself as a place where language might disrupt and surpass its conventions, thereby expanding the ways we experience and make sense of the world. But tell me more about how imagined translations seemed to you to be the way to go about it.
DN: The conceit of an imagined translation is sort of one answer to this problem of linguistic post-modernity and evolved neurological efficiency, because translations as such invoke questions of trust—they are very subversive that way. Translations are like Huxley’s mescaline, on which it is hard to trust whether your sight and your brain are properly translating nature into what you are seeing. So you are forced to look twice at it, to do a double take, to stare more closely at the thing itself, and become immersed in its texture, in its form, as if it were a completely new and alien thing you had never seen before—all in the service of doubting it and attempting to categorize it from scratch—instead of the normal, million-times-a-year occurrence of having vague form and mature language interact to hastily label a class of shape “flower” and move on.
In translations we also do the double take of drugs. Is this word “night” actually what the original thought-concept was; was it only “night” that was written in the original, as in “the black of night,” or did it also include the periods before and after it that are not actually black—twilight, dusk, dawn; did the translator out of convenience just lump all these together as “night”? Did the original language even make these distinctions? So we are forced to look closely at the word “night” and problematize the visual association in a way we would never think twice about were we confident that it was originally written “in our own language,” and to look for clues in the words around it. We then also see anew the color and spectrum of light intensity behind the words “blackness” and “shining stars” that the author has placed around the word “night,” we see them in their naturalness again because our all of a sudden mistrustful and confounded brain is looking for clues—in a way it rarely does when moving around “in its own language”—visual clues, to be able to place this word which in our own language is a vague, over-encompassing abstraction—“night” (as in “evening,” and also as in the linguistic residual of “day”)—but which, when translated from a foreign language, especially an ancient one, might again mean “blackness” and “silence” and “danger” and “the unknown.” And so in not trusting a translation we are forced to deconstruct all metaphors and to grapple with by now flat words and actually again feel them in terms of their original metaphors, their original strong meanings and concrete visual associations.
TD: It’s good that you didn’t go the hoax route, I think, and for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it probably would have distracted from the project’s finer points, which is what seemed to happen with the “Yasusada Affair.” But do you think your acknowledgment of authorship, or of the fact that there are no originals to which these poems are the English approximation, will impair a reader’s ability to engage with the work in the way you just described?
DN: Well there are “originals” in a very important sense—whilethe Lacunae are imaginary translations of poems that do not otherwise exist, they are intended to fill invented or actual lacunae in manuscripts of first- to eighth-century CE Classical Indian poetry (Amarusataka, originally in Sanskrit; Kuruntokai, originally in Old Tamil; and Gathasaptasati, originally in Maharastri Prakrit). So, critically, they are interpolations into real manuscripts. They are like the forensic exercise in Egyptology where a few decisive hieroglyphs have worn off on a wall we otherwise can read and understand to be a journey to the afterworld, and so the scholar has to infer, reconstruct, and interpolate—was it a “scepter” it says he held when facing the first night when the wall states “and facing the first night he held [unintelligible]”? The exercise is completely constrained and, in a sense, scholarly. Imagined interpolation into an ancient text, in order to avoid obvious anachronism, first cuts out modernity itself. The flora, the fauna have to be correct, when you interpolate—which I spend time researching. Second—and this is quite decisive—the emotions, to the extent that the primal languages of the ancient world conveyed them, have to be correct.
In Homer, when a warrior feels “pity”—to make the argument harder on myself by using a more complex emotion—it’s still that raw, old-fashioned form of pity that is meant, the way a modern American father might feel toward the kids on the football team his son is playing against when they have already irrevocably lost the game and yet continue to be scored against. It’s not some complex, late, neurotic, Woody Allen form of pity mixed up with what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called amour-propre. It’s not Schadenfreude. Those complex, post-natural emotions require extremely late, derived languages—in fact, as I have been arguing, one might even surmise that the messy set of emotions packed in late, derrived words might not even be intuitive to feel without the words themselves—that the availablity of the lingusistic construct and thought-concept expanded the menu of the emotional registry—but at any rate Homer’s warriors were described as feeling—the ancient Greek words meant—an old-fashioned, football dad sort of pity and not Schadenfreude. That’s so important to the exercise of imagined translations and interpolations into ancient texts because you constrain yourself into the forensic exercise by making sure that not only the flora and fauna are correct, but also that the emotional registry is as old, as primal, as the language you are translating, and that results in a very transportative exercise for the writer carrying out the imagined translation, and, I am sure, a different way of approaching and engaging a work written in that way when the reader knows it grew under the bonsai-like curation of these constraints and scholarly-forensic reconstruction practices.
Very simply, if the author sets out to write a love poem, as I have, that is not anachronistic to first-century Classical India, internet dating cannot appear, nor flowers that they could not have given one another (because they did not grow then or there), nor, from the perspective of emotional registry, can hooking up appear—there would have been much more of a sense of trembling and fear and “what will the world be like after this” imbued in all surreptitious sexual relations than we now even dare to think about when we use phrases like “hooking up.” The result is a very different love poem than one written in 2014, without those constraints. When you read a poem crafted in this texture, you get back to the broader purpose of imagined translations—a disintermediation of late-language and abstract, unfelt metaphor in our encounter with the natural world—because after all this, when she goes out at “night” to meet her illicit lover, that “night” you see is very black when she sneaks out—you know it’s not twilight or dusk, you know that even though it’s the blackest part of night the stars are too much light for her—that’s what I want to show you, the underworld-dark and yet still too light color of that sky when she looks up at it. Because were their love to be discovered it would change everything. Not just her “relationship status” on social media. That’s what I think imagined translations can show you. It’s very hard to find that color of black in modern literature, or even walking down the street at any hour on your watch.
TD: I wonder if this forensic work doesn’t depend on something similar to the cognitive shortcutting you had seemed to feel ambivalent about—or at least interested in shortcircuiting. If I can identify the stick with a red explosion at the end of it as a rose, that’s because context and previous experience quickly limit the number of possibilities, outruling some and offering others as likely candidates. Would it be true to say that you’re not so much interested in disabling these processes per se as you are in drawing them up “into the light of consciousness,” in order to enhance awareness of our own brain function?
DN: You are right that it’s very important to unpack the distinction between, on the one hand, the mirage of circumventing entirely our historically and experientially derived and linguistically enabled cognitive shortcuts—i.e., disabling them (as beautiful as it would be to return to the first experience of the first things, we must remember what Nietzsche “whispered to conservatives”: Man is not a crab, he can’t walk backwards)—and, on the other hand, developing a higher layer of meta-consciousness of these lower pathways and evolutionarily optimized shortcuts, an operating manual to the short-circuit board. Developing a higher layer of meta-consciousness means becoming reflective and reflexive in relation to these processes and more aware of them as adaptations of brain function—as natural, necessary, beyond good and evil as such, but not something we have to submit to unknowingly, and not something which can’t be pushed back against at the margins and in “little pockets of exeprience” that we can momentarily enounter the being and eternity of—for several seconds—before categorizing them with late metaphor.
TD: I keep thinking back to Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization as presented in his “Art as Technique.” Has this essay been of any particular importance to you?
DN: Shklovsky has some striking insights. I think there are a lot of great critics and poets who independently had very similar realizations, which is how you know something is very likely true. In my own case, I would say encountering the practice of defamiliarization in the work of Kafka and Borges left a very strong impression on me. Much in the same way as Tolstoy’s work—which is Shklovsky’s featured evidence—Kafka’s takes institutions he wants to subvert and makes them supernatural, mystical, strange—foreign. Borges, alternatively, more often sets them in the distant future or the remote past. Both techniques are some of the most potent answers art has to power. That being said, I think seeing the stoniness of the stone, as Shklovsky would say, is a technique of the poet from the perspective of the reader, but a natural and unavoidable way of seeing the world for the poet. That’s why, as in the old Socratic paradox, a poet can be a poet without ever writing a word, and a doctor may not actually be a doctor despite practicing medicine. In a poet defamiliarization is a neurological pathology of perception that happens to be very useful only for making art—for helping the reader, for whom this burden is not the ordinary state of affairs, recover the vivacity and beauty of seeing the world as a child and approaching routine experiences as if they are unfamiliar.
The history of art, like financial markets, is about what price are you willing to pay for something. For love. For revenge. For quiet. For significance.
I always remember thinking very slowly and seeing very slowly. Seeing the parts before the form. Building up from the arms and legs and ears and eyes to the recognition of a man, in the way children do, but somehow in my case I retained that simple ability into adulthood. It comes with tradeoffs: I have far less of an ability to have a conversation involving abstract nouns than does a person of even average intelligence—I just don’t understand what they mean. I am exceptionally ill suited to be a French literary critic. But I do have the interesting natural habit of, every time I am on the beach, running my thumb over the waxy side of the blade, and then along the fuzzy, almost prickly, underside, for something like 10-15 seconds before my brain even says “Palm Leaf” and sends a signal to my hand to put it down, having categorized and identified it. I have this experience even upon the three-hundredth occasion of the exact same tactile interaction. It’s like cognitive Groundhog Day. It’s as if a certain part of my brain has almost zero learning curve. But that’s a wonderfully useful defect for poetry, for perceiving elements of the natural world anew every time you pick them up—for increasing the length of perception and recovering the sensation of the first perception of a thing.
TD: Lastly, in addition to being a poet, you’re also a software designer and CEO of a hot finance technology company. Can you say something about how these fields overlap, complement, or compete with each other—?
DN: I started a company with a number of my classmates and friends from Harvard and MIT in the field of computational finance, which is essentially all about combining applied mathematics and large-scale distributed computing to model these anarchic, complex systems called financial markets. We were naturally fascinated with the seeming unpredictability of these massive, intricate systems, and to make a long story short, like some nth irreverent Hellenic boy trying his hand at the Gordian Knot—as if he were the first person in the history of the species to ever handle rope—we thought we could do it, that technology had become advanced enough that we could make some real headway modeling anarchic, organic systems, even ones as complex as financial markets. We have had some success.
As for a poet doing this . . . well . . . yes, I think it’s exquisitely complementary. There are precedents on both sides. In the twentieth century alone, you had T.S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney, who outside of their day jobs were critics and editors and teachers, you also had William Carlos Williams, who found time for poetry in the middle of being a fine doctor, and of course, Wallace Stevens, who by all accounts was an excellent businessman—in the finance and capital markets space no less. He became vice president of a firm that today is a publically traded Fortune 500 company in the same line of business as Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Past a certain point, Stevens continued to do this not because he needed to but because he was genuinely compelled by the intellectual and business challenges of investing, pricing insurance and risk, and capital markets. I think he would have loved talking with Warren Buffett as much as with any poet. That’s a bold statement—but if you look at the choices Stevens made in life, I think you will see that it is true.
Why would that be true of a man of Stevens’s intellect and sensitivity to beauty? Well, for one, financial markets are no different than so much of the history of art, which is about what price are you willing to pay for something. For love. For revenge. For quiet. For significance. We can both cite thousands of the finest literary examples. Risk-reward, cost-benefit analysis—and the way these interact with intuition and faith, are complicit in all of these examples, not just for Raskolnikov, Julien Sorel, and Dorian Gray. But even more importantly, there is a tremendous amount of mathematical beauty in complex systems like financial markets. The most fractal and intricate patterns of the universe appear when large crowds get together in a market and organize themselves spontaneously, organically, around supply and demand, around “price.” To offer but one example: the now widely accepted importance of Fibonacci ratios in modeling the movement of the stock market.
In mathematics there is a special ratio, named for Leonardo Fibonacci, that, confoundingly, describes the proportions of everything from nature’s tiniest fragments, such as atoms, to the grandest-scale structures in the universe, such as galaxies—unimaginably vast celestial bodies. These Fibonacci ratios are somehow involved in maintaining balance across every scale. Fibonacci ratios are also innate organizing principles in the natural pattern of branching in trees, in phyllotaxis (the arrangement of leaves on a stem), in the flowering of artichoke, the fruitlets of a pineapple, the arrangement of a pinecone, the geometry of florets in the head of a sunflower, and in the family tree of honeybees. Gorgeously, though we fancy ourselves as having far more free will than do honeybees—and we probably do—Fibonacci ratios also describe the pattern of buying and selling (specifically, support and resistance levels) in the stock market, which is the aggregate, anarchic and largely uncoordinated behavior of tens of millions of people. No one is individually trying to trade financial instruments to conform to an obscure, universal natural mathematical ratio identified in the thirteenth century—they just do. Almost no matter the asset, from soybean futures to shares of Apple, when its price increases or decreases significantly, it will then retrace a predictable portion of that move, and that retraced portion conforms to the key Fibonacci ratios of 23.6 percent, 38.2 percent, 50 percent, and 61.8 percent, after which the price will continue to move in the original direction. Relatively few people are aware of this, and it would seem to take tens of millions of market participants doing this consciously to make this mathematical pattern so persistent in financial markets. But that’s not what drives it. Large crowds are just deeply susceptible to these universal mathematical ratios, in the same way honeybees are, and it silently guides much of their behavior.
So it’s not surprising that mathematical patterns—and Fibonacci ratios are but one example—have become a fascination of those whose curiosity led them to the mountainous continental merging of art and science; da Vinci was obsessed with Fibonacci ratios and incorporated them into this paintings, including the Mona Lisa. And not unconnectedly to my project, the Fibonacci sequence also appears in Indian mathematics, in connection with Sanskrit prosody.
Mathematics, for which financial markets are but one playground, teaches you to appreciate patterns. To look for the microstructures of things, for fractals, patterns within patterns that look like the whole but are smaller than it. A cell’s relationship to the solar system, for example. Or an ocean current’s relationship to the salmon-colored streak in a white galaxy mist. It’s all about the very micro- and the very meta-. Not just macro-, but meta-. Our whole notion of physics is such that past a certain point on the threshold of scale, macro becomes meta. Meta-physics involves that which is both larger and outside of known physical laws and scales. The scale of the metaphysical, of the universe, is just too immeasurably and unimaginably large to not have an air of the mystical. Actually, the same is true for sufficiently small scales—for the quantum scale—the world of sub-atomic particles, which seemingly behave in an absolutely mystical way. Market patterns—anarchic, self-organizing systems—teach you to look for these incredibly small- and incredibly large-scale patterns, and to see the fractals, the symmetry across their scales. Perhaps more than anything, that’s what my poetry is about.
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October 02, 2014
22 Min read time