StairsEver since I studied the sociology of sociology I’ve been fascinated by recursive activity. I’ve heard professional speakers speaking about speaking and read writers writing about writing.

The current edition of the New Yorker features a translation of Wislawa Szymborska’s compelling poem Reciprocity (subscription required). It is a wonderful play on the idea of recursive activity. Of worlds within worlds. Mirror shades.

I found this Italian translation which I have rendered into English for the benefit of anyone who does not have a New Yorker subscription.

There are catalogs of catalogs.
There are poems about poems.
There are plays about actors played by actors.
Letters in response to letters.
Words used to clarify words.
Brains occupied with studying brains.
There are griefs as infectious as laughter.
Paper emerging from waste papers.
Seen glances.
Conditions conditioned by the conditional.
Large rivers with abundant contributions from small ones.
Forests overgrown by forests.
Machines designed to make machines.
Dreams wake us suddenly from dreams.
Health needed for regaining health.
Stairs leading as much up as down.
Glasses for finding glasses.
Inspiration born of expiration.
And even if only from time to time
hatred of hatred.
All in all,
ignorance of ignorance.
and hands employed to wash hands.

The last two lines alone summoned, for me, images of manicurists who don’t know what they don’t know, but (working backwards through the stanza) with every breath they take, have an opportunity to speak tolerantly with occasional customers.

And, of course, the whole silicon chip industry and Moore’s Law has been driven by machines designed to make machines that have enabled tremendous advances in cognitive science by corporations where careers are downsized as often as they advance; where patents filled with footnotes are written on recycled paper; where the sum of knowledge is made up of a multitude of small contributions; where the Light of Consciousness itself can awaken us from this dream of our limited and limiting conditional existence. Klik-Klak, pattern patterning.

At least that’s what the poem seems to be saying, at first glance.

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