Monday, April 18, 2011

A Beard Tangled With Headphones

In the First Circle (В круге первом, V kruge pervom) is a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn released in 1968. A fuller version of the book was published in English in 2009.

The novel depicts the lives of the occupants of a sharashka (a R&D bureau made of gulag inmates) located in the Moscow suburbs. This novel is highly autobiographical. Many of the prisoners (zeks) are technicians or academics who have been arrested under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code in Joseph Stalin's purges following the Second World War. Unlike inhabitants of other gulag labor camps, the sharashka zeks were adequately fed and enjoy good working conditions.

The title is an allusion to Dante's first circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy, wherein the philosophers of Greece live in a walled green garden. They are unable to enter Heaven, but enjoy a small space of relative freedom in the heart of Hell.

I didn’t dance with this woman,
just passed her in a parking lot
both of us walking on asphalt.
She was bundled against the cold
in a dark blue jacket like mine.
We walked toward each other. She edged

to her left, passing on my right.
I wondered, Was she from Europe,
used to sitting on the wrong side
of cars, driving on the wrong side
of streets, passing on the wrong side
when walking through a parking lot?

Her lips were tight, she was squinting,
but her face was expressionless.
We passed each other, both bundled
against the cold in dark blue coats.
She looked so beautiful—tough, hard,
expressionless in the cold wind.

I couldn’t bring myself to speak
to strike up a conversation
because I’d rather pretend words—
I mean the English words I’d use—
would be unintelligible
to her because where she comes from

they speak Russian about physics
and politics and poetry.
We walked toward each other. She edged
to her left, passing on my right.
I tried to look expressionless.
I tried to look hard. Politics.

Physics. Poetry. The cold wind,
I pretended, blew through barbed wire.
When the lights are out I scribble
these words by moonlight on paper
I steal from somebody’s office.
Someone will read this, I pretend.

Working with Dudley in the acoustics department, [of Bell Labs] Schroeder would consult The First Circle while developing his own voice-excited vocoder—the first of these machines to actually sound human. Demonstrating for his associates, Schroeder assumed that his vocoder could be understood, only because he’d been listening to it all day, the same pratfall that occurs in The First Circle. Struggling between intelligibility and just hearing things, he noted its annoying habit of turning a phrase. “How to recognize speech” sounded like “How to wreck a nice beach.”

“People will go to any length (and width) to be unintelligible,” wrote Schroeder in his book Computer Speech: Recognition, Compression, and Synthesis. So much for the Language of Maximum Clarity.

In The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn compared speech encoding to disassembling a beach and then re-synthesizing it at another location—essentially transposing a summer getaway as if it were a Soviet munitions factory on the run. He called it “an engineering desecration,” the equivalent of pulverizing a southern resort into grits, sticking them into a billion matchboxes, shaking them up and then flying them to a different sector for reconstruction. “A re-creation of the subtropics, the sound of the waves on the shore, the southern air and moonlight.”

The sand in your shorts, the bad radio reception, the copper tonality, the jellyfish parachute squishing between your toes, the effervescent fizz of unvoiced surf. The burning red sun. For the zeks at Marfino the vocoder could make getaways out of sentences, if only inside their heads. A gulag prison term, an imagined escape. The last re-sort, a desperate scramble. As if Solzhenitsyn had burst from his lab table in a flock of schemata, his beard tangled with headphones, denouncing the artificial beach. Somebody had to say something.

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