In “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” Artist John Koenig Names Feelings that Leave Us Speechless

It may be a misconception, it may be a cliché: I’m not a German speaker—but reading translator’s introductions to, say, Kant, Hegel or Goethe has convinced me that their language does a much better job than English at capturing those oddly specific twilight moods and compound feelings that so often escape definition. Then again, English absorbs, cannibalizes, appropriates, steals, and bastardizes words wherever it can find them, driving lexicographers and grammar purists mad.

Graphic designer and filmmaker John Koenig does all of these things in his “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” a blog project in which he names emotions that otherwise leave us speechless. In his short video above, he illustrates one of his words, “Sonder,” or “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own…”—something like the shock of sudden empathy that shakes us out of navel-gazing. It’s an emotion I’ve experienced, without knowing what to call it.

This being an “obscure sorrow,” there’s more to it than empathy—in Koenig’s poetic video, “sonder” relates to the infinite number of overlapping stories, in which each of us feels we are the hero, others supporting cast or extras. In a state of “sonder,” we suddenly occupy all of those roles at once, our screen time diminishing as others take the lead. After watching Koenig’s film, I’m thinking “sonder” is a portmanteau of “sublime” and “wonder.” It’s a mystical philosophy contained within a single made-up word.

Some other Koenig coinages: “Ruckkehrunruhe,” “nodus tollens,” “adronitis,” “rigor samsa”….. I leave it to you to visit Koenig’s Dictionary and learn what these words mean. It’s an experience well worth your time.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Revealed: The Visual Effects Behind The Great Gatsby

Several days ago, Chris Godfrey, the VFX supervisor on the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, posted a remarkable “before and after” film on Vimeo.  Running four minutes, the short compilation reveals the many sets and scenes created with computer generated images. It’s all pretty impressive from a technical point of view. No doubt. And yet this wizardry contributed to making what’s widely considered a mediocre film. In The New Yorker, film critic David Denby writes:

Luhrmann’s version is merely a frantic jumble. The picture is filled with an indiscriminate swirling motion, a thrashing impress of “style” (Art Deco turned to digitized glitz), thrown at us with whooshing camera sweeps and surges and rapid changes of perspective exaggerated by 3-D…. Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.

Sometimes, as they say, less is more….

via Richard Brody

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A Short, Animated Look at What’s Inside Your Average Cup of Coffee

What’s inside your average cupe of joe? Wired breaks it down for us. Let’s start with the obvious, water and caffeine. But did you know about the traces of 2-ethylphenol, which otherwise doubles as a cockroach pheromone?  Or how about dimethyl disulfide, which has industrial uses in oil refineries? And acetylmethylcarbinol? It gives the coffee its pleasant, buttery odor. Want to keep contemplating coffee? Check out the related resources below:

The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

Black Coffee: Documentary Covers the History, Politics & Economics of the “Most Widely Taken Legal Drug”

Everything You Wanted to Know About Coffee in Three Minutes

The Do’s and Don’ts of Improv Comedy with Liam Neeson, Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Del Close

Attention, all struggling comedians! There’s big money in teaching corporate executives the rules of improvisation. Not to prepare them for a highly lucrative second career on some late night, black box stage, but rather to hone their listening skills, teach them how to work collaboratively, and give them practice communicating in a flexible—and therefore effective—manner.

The above clip from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Life’s Too Short, suggests that actor Liam Neeson might benefit from similar training.

Or are Gervais and Merchant guilty of failing to embrace the Rules of Improv, when Neeson, having solicited a suggestion of “hypochondriac at the doctor’s office” from series star Warwick Davis, announces that he’s contracted full blown AIDS from a starving African prostitute?

Even though it’s obvious that the supremely gifted Neeson is having a laugh, let’s see if we can determine who’s breaking the cardinal rules of improv in this scene.

Comedian Tina Fey has Four Rules of Improv that resonate with both business and funny people:

  1. The first rule of improvisation is to AGREE. 
  2. The second rule of improv is to not only say YES, say YES, AND.
  3. The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. (Neeson does great in this department)

Hmm. One thing’s clear. A bad improviser can drag the most gifted practitioners of the form down with him.

The brilliance of the scripted scene recalls late improv guru Del Close‘s Eleven Commandments:

  1. You are all supporting actors.
  2. Always check your impulses.
  3. Never enter a scene unless you are NEEDED.
  4. Save your fellow actor, don’t worry about the piece.
  5. Your prime responsibility is to support.
  6. Work at the top of your brains at all times.
  7. Never underestimate or condescend to your audience.
  8. No jokes (unless it is tipped in front that it is a joke.)
  9. Trust… trust your fellow actors to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself.
  10. Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by entering or cutting), what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.
  11. LISTEN

That’s likely ample rules, though it’s tempting to add:

Never (or perhaps always) pretend to knock on a door by saying “knock knock.”

Never (or perhaps always) pretend to open a shop door by saying “tring.”

Never (or perhaps always) identify a “well known homosexual actor” by name.

And if any corporate clients—or Ricky Gervais—need lessons in how to keep from “corpsing” while delivering funny material, Liam Neeson is for sure the man for the job.

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Ayun Halliday was a founding member of The No Fun Mud Piranhas, Northwestern University’s Improv Olympic Team. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’

Noam Chomsky’s well-known political views have tended to overshadow his groundbreaking work as a linguist and analytic philosopher. As a result, people sometimes assume that because Chomsky is a leftist, he would find common intellectual ground with the postmodernist philosophers of the European Left.

Big mistake.

In this brief excerpt from a December, 2012 interview with Veterans Unplugged, Chomsky is asked about the ideas of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The M.I.T. scholar, who elsewhere has described some of those figures and their followers as “cults,” doesn’t mince words:

What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.

via Leiter Reports

Related content:

John Searle on Foucault and the Obscurantism in French Philosophy

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature and Power on Dutch TV, 1971

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Philosopher Slavoj Zizek Interprets Hitchcock’s Vertigo in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006)

Free Philosophy Courses

Two Drawings by Jorge Luis Borges Illustrate the Author’s Obsessions


Jorge Luis Borges had many fascinations—detective novels, gauchos, libraries, and labyrinths. Two prominent figures that occupied his mind, the tango and mythical monsters, appear in drawings Borges made in his manuscripts. Of the tango, Borges did much to spread the idea that the sensual Argentine dance originated in brothels. In his drawing above of a tango-ing couple, he writes at the top (in Spanish): “The tango is a brothel dance. Of this I have no doubt.”

Borges would repeat this claim on many occasions. In his 1930 biography of Evaristo Carreiego, he writes, “my informants concur on one essential fact: the tango originated in the brothels.”

Why this history so intrigued Borges I do not know, but I do know that he once collaborated with Argentine composer Astor Piazzola on an album of tangos in 1965. The drawing comes from the University of Notre Dame’s special collections (you can read a Spanish transcription of the rest of the text at their site).


Above, see another of Borges’ sketches, this one from the University of Virginia’s extensive Borges collection. The drawing appears in a manuscript titled “The Old Argentine Habit,” penned in 1946 and published (as “Our Poor Individualism”) in Borges’ 1952 essay collection Other Inquisitions. According to C. Jared Lowenstein, the drawing is titled in German, “Die Hydra der Diktator” (“The Hydra of the Dictators”) and depicts Rosas, Peron, Mussolini, Hitler, and Marx and is signed “Jorge Luis Borges 46.” Lowenstein writes:

The theme of the artwork is a stunning political statement by a writer who has often been deemed apolitical. It is also a remarkably detailed drawing, especially for someone who was losing his eyesight as Borges was at this time. This marvelous depiction supplements Borges’s declaration in his text that Argentineans see themselves as individuals, not as citizens of a specific nation.

It is indeed a remarkably detailed work. I only wish Borges had supplied illustrations for his Book of Imaginary Beings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jean-Luc Godard’s Debut, Opération béton (1955) — a Construction Documentary

“A 2500 m. d’altitude, dans le Val des Dix, un millier d’homme dresse un mur de béton aussi haut que la Tour Eiffel: le barrage de la ‘GRANDE-DIXENCE’.” So begins Jean-Luc Godard’s very first film, Opération béton. You Francophones will have gathered that, for the debut that would begin his long, passionate career in filmmaking, Godard chose to shoot the construction of “a wall as high as the Eiffel Tower” by a thousand men and out of concrete — a great deal of concrete indeed. Valais’ Grande Dixence dam not only provided Godard the director the subject of his first movie, but the funds to make it as well. Despite having already gained some momentum writing critical pieces for Cahiers du cinéma, the 23-year-old Godard took hard manual work on the dam’s job site, joining his friend Jean-Pierre Laubscher already employed there. Then the idea came to him: why not shoot a documentary about all of this?

Arranging a transfer through Laubscher to a less taxing place on the dam as a switchboard operator, Godard then borrowed a 35-millimeter camera from a friend of a friend and got to work — his real work, that of cinema. “The original commentary for La Campagne du beton (The Campaign of Concrete or The Concrete Countryside), written by Laubscher and dated October 17, 1954, was two pages long and concise; it merely labeled the action,” writes critic Richard Brody in Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. “But Godard gave the film a rhyming title instead, Opération béton (Operation Concrete) and rewrote the commentary. Though he kept several of Laubscher’s felicitous turns of phrase, Godard’s version, which he recorded in his own voice, greatly amplified the verbiage and resembled, instead of a series of photo captions, a person’s enthusiastic, digressive account of his experience at work.” Certain die-hard Godard-heads may also identify hints of the auteur’s favorite themes: labor, capital, nationalism, the machine-like systems that surround humanity. Certainly the industry-admiring tone seems suitably, er, breathless.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Gertrude Stein Gets a Snarky Rejection Letter from Publisher (1912)


Gertrude Stein considered herself an experimental writer and wrote what The Poetry Foundation calls “dense poems and fictions, often devoid of plot or dialogue,” with the result being that “commercial publishers slighted her experimental writings and critics dismissed them as incomprehensible.” Take, for example, what happened when Stein sent a manuscript to Alfred C. Fifield, a London-based publisher, and received a rejection letter mocking her prose in return. According to Letters of Note, the manuscript in question was published many years later as her modernist novel, The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925). You can hear Stein reading a selection from the novel below. Also find other Gertrude Stein works in our collections of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books.

via Electric Literature

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