Vladimir Nabakov – Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle,1969

Japanes Shunga-Honolulu Museum of Art

The collection of Uncle Dan’s Oriental Erotica prints turned out to be artistically second-rate and inept calisthenically. In the most hilarious, and expensive, picture, a Mongolian woman with an inane oval face surmounted by a hideous hair-do was shown communicating sexually with six rather plump, blank-faced gymnasts in what looked like a display window jammed with screens, potted plants, silks, paper fans and crockery. Three of the males, contorted in attitudes of intricate discomfort, were using simultaneously three of the harlot’s main orifices; two older clients were treated by her manually; and the sixth, a dwarf, had to be contented with her deformed foot. Six other voluptuaries were sodomizing her immediate partners, and one more had got stuck in her armpit. Uncle Dan, having patiently disentangled all those limbs and belly folds directly or indirectly connected with the absolutely calm lady (still retaining somehow parts of her robes), had penciled a note that gave the price of the picture and identified it as: “Geisha with 13 lovers.” Van located, however, a fifteenth navel thrown in by the generous artist but impossible to account for anotamically.

Vladimir Nabakov, 1899-1977. Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, 1969

Copyright © 1969 by Article 3C Trust under the Will of Vladimir Nabokov

Image: Japanese Shunga. Honolulu Museum of Art

Larry Niven – The Artists, 2011

Subterranean Magazine. winter2011Unholy Colors, the latest of the Chirpsithra interstellar liners, sent down a boatful of artists and artistry to pile up around the walls of the Draco Tavern.

Some of the big stuff could stay outside, but most of it was too delicate. The work had been accumulating for two days now. Aliens in many shapes drifted among the displays, critiquing each other’s work in a score of alien languages.

The bar wasn’t selling much. The viewers were reluctant to carry drinks and the like. Spilled drinks, sparkers, foodstuffs, smoke or toxic gasses could ruin too many of these displays.

The work was generally impressive. Some of what was lined along the curved wall seemed half familiar. Paintings, sculpture, weaving. But the paintings showed odd colors, oddly matched to human eyesight. Alien graffiti wrote itself as you watched. Water above a fountain twisted into strange curves, glowing in neon colors. Some of the sculpted shapes, and some of the holograms, moved. Light sprayed in random patterns. Between a fractally twisted tree and a radio antenna that wasn’t doing anything, another tree grew taller as I watched.

It reached a limit, a cage of branches.

I went about my business, and looked again, and the tree was gone. Yet there was something there…

I stopped by the bar to pick up a palm stun. No suspicions, just a habit I’ve tried to encourage in myself. I strode casually among tall Chirpsithra, small yellow bugs, creatures armored or hairy or feathered, a water tank on tractor treads, a snake with a huge mouth and several tongues…alien artists wandering among the displays.

What I thought I’d seen was there, slumped against the blue curve of the wall. I could just make it out from two feet away: half a kiloton of octopoid bulge, its body a half-empty sack, its eight tentacles thick and muscular and bifurcated into fingerlets. Its skin glowed a wonderful sky blue, shading itself to match the holo wall. Now its eyes met mine. Then the blue darkened almost to black, and rainbow shapes like tiny octopi lifted from a seabed and swam a pattern across the creature’s bulbous torso, as if trying to write a message.

I spoke into the bead mike of my translator. “Are you participating in the Gallery Display?”

“I am.”

“I’m Rick Schumann. I run the Draco Tavern. Welcome.”

“I thank you. My name is View from the Depth.”

“Can I fetch you sustenance?” Usually a visiting ship keeps me supplied with whatever a visiting alien needs. I couldn’t remember anything unusual being delivered since Unholy Colors’ lander came down. “What’s your physiological type?”

“Tee tee hatch nex ool. May I have seawater?”

I went back to the bar. I was mildly surprised: tee tee hatch nex ool is the same code as mine, as Earth life, the air and water patterns that won’t poison, for instance, a human being. I mixed up a reasonable approximation of seawater, chilled it a little, and brought a big bowl of it to View.

“Refreshing,” View said, its eyes and beak dripping. “Do you enjoy alien art forms?”

“Some are very pretty. Talking to the artists is mostly confusing. What else can you show me?”

“My companions liked this.” View’s body changed. In dark depths colors swirled: pillars and jets of stardust brilliantly lit from offstage. Stars formed explosively. One came near, nestled in a thousand rings. The rings grew lumpy and formed planets in blasts of white light.

My score of customers were watching me and View. Conversation swirled, and I sensed amusement.

I asked View, “Where are you from?”

“I will show.” Again View’s body sac darkened at the edges, brightening in the center. I watched a planet form. The view zoomed in, and I recognized the Philippines, New Guinea, Japan rimming an arc of Indian Ocean. Now there were only islands visible: Micronesia, and an awful lot of water.

A Glig was at my elbow, a little too big and a little too close. “Do you like View from the Depth?”

It dawned on me: View was a display of genetic skill, a work of art. “Impressive. Yours?”

The artists were laughing, each in its own way. The Glig said, “No. View from the Depth was worked by Sea People.”

We should never have let the Sea People into the oceans. “View, are there more of you?”

“Two early versions. Next version will breed, but must have permission of the Chirpsithra.”

“These are our oceans,” I said.

“Tell the Chirpsithra. I do not hold copyright.”

Yerrofistch wore rank markings on her scarlet chitin chest. If I’d read them right, she was an officer of middle rank among Unholy Colors’ Chirpsithra crew. I brought a sparker to her table and struck up a conversation.

She said, “The Sea People entered your Atlantic Ocean during the year the Draco Tavern was shut down. After all, where else were they to go? Many species visited other parts of Earth during that period.”

“I know. They bred like crazy and ate up a lot of fish. Where are they now?”

“The passengers, the primary group, moved on with their ship. Their progeny are mules; they will not breed. Are you worried about their consumption of fish?”

“No, not that.” The Sea People had eaten deep into the fish population of the Indian Ocean, but they’d found a way to pay that back. They’d helped the locals build OTEC power plants, powered by the difference in temperature between the surface and the bottom of the ocean. One side effect of pumping warm water down was that warm currents rose from the depths, carrying nutrients to feed more fish. “No, it’s what they’ve been doing with the octopus, the local life forms.”

I pointed out View. Yerrofistch stood and walked over.

At that point the bar got busy. I didn’t get a chance to join them for some time, but I did watch them talking. View was creating visuals to illustrate important points.

When I joined them, Yerrofistch said, “She is intelligent.”

“I know,” I said.

“What Sea People remain number in the thousands. They were left to deal with View and her people and several other experiments. We’ll look into those. Meanwhile, these that View calls the Many Hands are a legitimately sapient species. Copyright no longer applies: they own themselves. I don’t see that they will disturb your civilization much. You don’t share territory. View and two sisters are the only models who can walk and breathe out of the ocean.”

Most of my customers now clustered around the fireplace. It had just been floated in, a pit of bricks and charcoal with an inverted funnel chimney above the flame, and it had the aliens fascinated. I was surprised. Fire’s common enough. But the centauroid artist was preening.

“I can do that,” View from the Depth said. Flames chased themselves across her torso and limbs; smoke darkened above. A human reporter, festooned with camera specs and sensors, turned to watch her.

“No heat,” I said.

“No. May I have water?”

“I’ll get it.”

“Wait. What is this I’m told? Are you shutting down the artists’ display?”

“In twenty-six days.”

“Must I return to the sea? I must visit, of course, but I find more of interest on the land.”

“I was wondering,” I said. “Could you represent your kind as an ambassador? I was thinking your people should petition for representation in the United Nations. Otherwise someone might take away their fishing grounds.”

“I do not know that I would still be considered one of them. I am so altered.”

“Where’s their choice? The UN meets on land.”

“Well, I can ask. Thank you, Rick. Is this one of the displays?”

I introduced the reporter to the octopus, and they began an interview.

Larry Niven, b. 1938.   The Artists, 2011

Published in Subterranean Press Magazine, Winter 2011


Heinrich von Kleist, Clemens Bretano, Achim von Arnim: Various Expressions Experienced Before A Seascape With A Monk By Caspar David Friedrich, 1810

caspar david friedrich monk

It is magnificent to stand in infinite solitude on the seashore, beneath an overcast sky, and to look on an endless waste of water. Part of this feeling is the fact that one has made life’s way there and yet must go back, that one would like to cross over but cannot, that one sees nothing to support life and yet senses the voice of life in the sigh of the waves, the murmur of the air, the passing clouds and the lonely cry of birds. Part of this feeling is a claim made by the heart and a rejection, if I may call it that, on the part of nature. But this is impossible in front of the picture, and what I should have found in the picture itself I found only between myself and the picture, namely a claim my heart made on the picture and the picture’s rejection of me; and so I myself became the monk, and the picture became the dune, but the sea itself, on which I should have looked out with longing — the sea was absent. 
[There can be nothing sadder or more desolate in the world than this place: the only spark of life in the broad domain of death, the linely centre in the lonely circle. The picture, with its two or three mysterious subjects (monk, dune, sea), lies there like an apocalypse, as if it were thinking Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts” and since it has, in its uniformity and boundlessness, no foreground but the frame, it is as if one’s eyelids had been cut off. Yet the painter has undoubtedly broken an entirely new path in the field of his art, and I am convinced that with his spirit, a square mile of the sand of Mark Brandenburg could be represented with a barberry bush, on which a lone crow might sit preening itself, and that such a picture would have an effect that rivalled Ossian or Kosegarten. Why, if the artist painted this landscape using its own chalk and its own water, I believe he would make the foxes and wolves weep: the most powerful praise, without doubt, that could be given to this kind of landscape painting. 
Yet my own impressions of this wonderful painting are too confused, and so, before I venture to express them in full, I have decided to learn what I can from the remarks of the couples who pass before it from morning till evening.] 
I listened to the remarks of the many viewers around me and now relay them as comments on this painting, which is surely a stage set before which a scene must be acted, for it allows no repose.

(Enter a Lady [the wife of a senior official in the War Department] and a Gentleman [perhaps a great wit]).

LADY (looks in her catalogue): Painting Number Two: a landscape in oils. What do you think of it?
GENTLEMAN: Infinitely deep and sublime!
LADY: You mean the sea, yes, it must be amazingly deep, and the monk is also very sublime.
GENTLEMAN: No, Frau Kriegsrat, I mean the emotion felt by the one and only Friedrich before this painting.
LADY: Is it old enough for him to have seen it too?
GENTLEMAN: Ah, you misunderstand me, I refer to the painter Friedrich, not our great King Frederick. At the sight of this picture, Ossian strikes up on his harp. (Exeunt)

(Enter two Young Ladies)

FIRST LADY: Did you hear that, Louise? It’s Ossian.
SECOND LADY: No, surely you misunderstand. It’s the ocean.
FIRST LADY: But he said he was striking his harp.
SECOND LADY: Well, I don’t see any harp. It’s really gruesome.

(Enter two Connoisseurs)

FIRST CONNOISSEUR: Greysome, yes, it is all terribly grey. how he insists on painting such dry stuff.
SECOND CONNOISSEUR: You mean, how he insists on painting such wet stuff so dryly.
FIRST CONNOISSEUR: I suppose he paints it as well as he can.

(Enter a Governess and two Young Ladies)

GOVERNESS: This is the sea near Rügen.
FIRST YOUNG LADY: Where Kosegarten lives.
SECOND YOUNG LADY: Where groceries come from.
GOVERNESS: Why did he paint nothing but dull skies? How lovely it would be if he had painteed some men gathering amber on the seashore.
FIRST YOUNG LADY: Oh yes, I’d like to fish for a nice amber necklace for myself.

(Enter a Young Lady with two Children and a few Gentlemen.)

GENTLEMAN: Magnificent, magnificent! This is the only artist who expresses a soul in his landscapes. There is a great individuality in this picture, high truth, solitude, the overcast, melancholy sky — he knows what he’s painting all right.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: And he also paints what he knows, and feels it, and thinks it, and paints it.
FIRST CHILD: What is that?
FIRST GENTLEMAN: That is the sea, my boy, and a monk who is taking a walk along the shore and feeling sad because he hasn’t got a good little boy like you.
SECOND CHILD: Why isn’t he dancing at the front of the picture? Why doesn’t he waggle his head like in a shadow-play? That would be more fun!
FIRST CHILD: I suppose he predicts the weather, like the monk outside our window.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: That’s a different kind of monk, my boy, but he does predict the weather, he is the one within the wholeness, the lonely centre in the lonely circle.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Yes, he is the soul, the heart, the whole picture’s reflection in itself and on itself.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: How divinely the figure is chosen, it is not merely a device to show the height of the other objects, as in the work of the common run of painters. He is the subject itself, he is the picture; and as he seems to dream himself into this setting, as if into a sad mirror of his isolation, so the shipless, enclosing sea, which binds him like a vow, and the bleak, sandy shore, as friendless as his life, seem symbolically to make him spring up again like a lonely dune plant prophesying its own fate.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Magnificent, certainly, you are right. (To the Lady) But, my dear, you have not said a word.
LADY: Oh, I felt so at home in front of the picture, it truly touched me. It is truly lifelike, and when you were talking like that, it was all hazy, just like when I went for a walk beside the sea with our philosophical friends. I only wish that a fresh sea breeze was blowing and a sail was coming in, and that there was a glint of sunlight and the water was lapping. As it is, it’s like a dream, having a nightmare or feeling homesick — let’s move on, it’s making me feel sad.

(Enter a Lady and a Gentleman as her guide.)

LADY (stands for a long time before speaking): How grand, how immeasurably grand! It is as if the sea was thinking Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts”.
GENTLEMAN: You mean, as if they had occurred to the monk here?
LADY: If only you wouldn’t make jokes all the time, and spoil the impression. Secretly you feel the same but you want to mock in others what you yourself reverence. What I said was, it is as if the sea was thinking Young’s “Night Thoughts”.
GENTLEMAN: Yes, I agree, particularly the Karlsruke second edition, and Mercier’s “Bonnet de nuit” as well, and then Schubert’s “View of Nature from its Dark Side” on top of that.
LADY: The best answer I can give you is a similar anecdote. When the immortal Klopstock wrote the line “Dawn smiles” in a poem for the first time, Madame Gottsched read it and said, “Did she pout as well?”
GENTLEMAN: Surely not as prettily as you when you say that.
LADY: You are beginning to annoy me.
GENTLEMAN: And Gottsched gave his wife a kiss for her bon mot.
LADY: I could give you a “bonnet de nuit” for yours, but a wet blanket would be more appropriate.
GENTLEMAN: Surely I am more like a view of your nature from its dark side.
LADY: You are teasing.
GENTLEMAN: Ah, if only we were both standing there, like the monk!
LADY: I would leave you and go to the monk.
GENTLEMAN: And ask him to make us one.
LADY: No, to throw you in the water.
GENTLEMAN: And then you would be alone with the holy man, and you would seduce him, and spoil the whole picture and his night thoughts; you see, that’s what you women are like, in the end you destroy what you feel, in your very lying you tell the truth. How I wish I was the monk, forever gazing out alone over the dark, foreboding sea which spreads out before him like the apocalypse. I would forever yearn for you, dear Julia, yet would be without you forever, for longing is the only magnificent feeling in love.
LADY: no, no, my dear, it is true in this picture too; if you talk like that, I will jump in the water after you and leave the monk by himself.

All this while, a tall, forbearing man was listening with some signs of impatience; I came close to treading on his foot and he answered me as if in so doing I have asked his opinion. “It’s a good thing the pictures can’t hear, or else they’d have veiled themselves long ago; people treat them in a very ill-mannered way and are firmly convinced that the pictures are standing in the pillory here for some secret offence which onlookers must at all costs discover.” 
”But what is your own opinion of the picture?” I asked. “I am glad”, he replied, “that there is still one landscape painter who pays attention to the strange conjunctures of the seasons and the sky, which produce the most striking effects in even the poorest regions. True, I would prefer it if he also had the gift and the technique to represent it truthfully; in this respect he is as far inferior to some of the Dutch School who have painted subjects similar to this as he is their superior in his overall approach. It would not be difficult to name a dozen pictures where the sea and the shore and the monk are better painted. From a certain distance the figure looks like a brown smudge; if I had wanted to paint a monk I sooner have shown him lying down asleep, or set him lower to pray or look about him in all modesty, so as not to spoil the view for the visitors, on whom the outspread ocean obviously makes a greater impression than the little monk. Anyone who looked around later for the people of the coast would still find in the monk every reason to say what several of the visitors have said effusively and confidently, loud enough for all to hear.” 
These words pleased me so much that I at once went home with the gentleman, where I still reside, and where you will be able to find me in the future. 

[the end]


Heinrich von Kleist,1777-1810,  Clemens Bretano, 1778-1842, Ludwig Achim von Arnim,1781-1831

Various Expressions Experienced Before A Seascape With A Monk By Caspar David Friedrich, 1810. Published in Berliner Abendblätter, October 1810

Image:  Caspar David Friedrich,  Der Mönch am Meer, 1808-1810 (The Monk by the Sea), Oil on Canvas. 110 x 171.5cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin