Helen DeWitt’s ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’


Helen DeWitt’s ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’


“Uncertainty and information are the same quantities, the removal of uncertainty being equated with the giving of information.” —Codes and Cryptography by Dominic Welsh

The train stops at Kottbusser Tor. Cement stairs go down. In the concrete cavern a Reisemarkt sells tickets for the U-Bahn and the lottery, cigarettes, papers: Frankfurter Allgemeine, Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost, Gazzetta dello Sport, le Monde. There’s a revolving stand of Turkish papers. Fanatik seems to be the Turkish equivalent of Gazzetta dello Sport. The Guardian, the FT, the Wall Street Journal. A refrigerated case has yogurt drinks in glass bottles, beers with gold or silver foil over the cap and neck. There are squares of Ritter sports chocolate: Quadratisch. Praktisch. Gut.

If he had children he could buy squares of chocolate to take thome. It’s not an appropriate gift for a robot.

He has no habits now, only memories of habits. Looking for things to buy to prove he’d been where he said he’d been. Looking for things that could have been bought where he said he’d been. Things that were tied to a place; things that weren’t tied to a place. Things with no ties were a safer habit.

He buys a Wall Street Journal, which is running a piece on nanotechnology. It’s good to see what people with money are being told to bet on.

He walks out. There’s a flower stall to his left with gilded roses, tulips with tightly packed heads, the massed flowers of the periphery of a vision that has never looked with an eye to buy. Two concrete ramps fork up; he takes the one on the left and comes out by an open-air vegetable market. Behind it, a Rossmann’s Droguerie, Tadım Yaprak Döner Kebap, Asia Snack Thuy-Chung, Optik Bey. He used to do it automatically, scope out places he could plausibly loiter. He doesn’t do that automatically anymore.

He has a better idea, now, of the sheer pointlessness of much of normal behavior. He browses unconvincingly. There’s no one to be convinced.

A newsagent-cum-bookseller: Regenbogen Buchhandlung Gökkuşağı Kitabevi TÜRKÇE KİTAP KASET VE CD TÜRKISCHE BÜCHER CD`s und MC`s.

He goes in.

Complete works of Stalin, 12 volumes, 80 Euros. Complete works of Lenin, 16 volumes, 80 Euros.

They have a shelf of paperbacks by Orhan Pamuk. He read one once. He’d like to buy it.

If Kitap = Buch then Kara Kitap =? Black Book. 15,50.

He does not know Turkish, but he opens the book and looks at the words. He feels closer to this writer, probably, than to any writer in any language he knows, read only in sentences with meanings tangled up with other encounters with the language.

The back cover has:

“Pamuk’un şaheseri.” THE TIMES 



“Zengin, yaratıcı, modern bir ulusal destan.” THE SUNDAY TIMES, İNGİLTERE

“Büyüleyici, çetin ve esrarlı bir işaretler girdabı. Bitmeyen bir enerji, çok nadir birşşey…” LIRE, FRANSA

He looks up “şaheser” in a Turkisch- Deutsch dictionary he does not mean to buy. Meisterwerk. A masterpiece.

He buys the book and walks out.

The people he knew are dead.

He’ll go back to the Café Einstein.

There’s nothing here.

He gets a table in the curve of a maroon leather bench hugging a corner. The place hasn’t changed much, though the Euro has hiked the prices. He orders a Schultheiss.

He puts the Wall Street Journal on the table beside him. He opens his book.

Birinci Bölüm

Galip Rüya’yı İlk Gördüğünde

“Epigraf kullanmayın, çünkü yazının içindeki esrarı öldürür!”


“Böyle ölecekse, öldür o zaman sen de esrarı, esrar satan yalancı peygamberi öldür!”


Yatağın başından ucuna kadar uzanan mavi damalı yorganın engebeleri, gölgeli vadileri ve mavi yumuşak tepeleriyle örtülü tatlı ve ılık karanlıkta Rüya yüzükoyun uzanmışş uyuyordu. Dışarıdan kışşsabahının ilk sesleri geliyordu: Tek tük geçen arabalar ve eski otobüsler, poğaçacıyla işbirliği eden salepçinin kaldırıma konup kalkan güğümleri ve dolmuş durağının değnekçisinin düdüğü.

He likes this. He likes this very much.

Is this rational? It looks highly irrational, as does the purchase of the book.

Is it, then, genuinely irrational behavior which would, like so much genuinely irrational behavior, be intuitively comprehensible to most, perhaps all, hypothetical observers? Genuinely irrational but highly unusual behavior reflecting preferences which would mark him out as eccentric, perhaps mad? Apparently irrational but ultimately rational behavior, perhaps some sort of effective hunter- gatherer heuristics procedure, which would be widely recognized as such? Ultimately rational behavior which would, like so much rational behavior, be radically incomprehensible to the average observer?

Billions of purchases cluster around 100% comprehensibility. 20%, perhaps a few hundred thousand. Finnegans Wake. Tender Buttons. 0%, 1.

Humans have the capacity to assign meaning to behavior not previously encountered. Not all outlying behaviors are meaningless.

Purchase of 100% comprehensible books comprehensible to some but not all non-book buyers. Purchase of FW/TB comprehensible to some but not all non-FW/ TB buyers. Purchase of incomprehensible book possibly comprehensible to some non- incomprehensible-book buyers.

His memory of the translation he read is a contributing factor. Incomprehensibility would have come cheaper in a copy of Fanatik(0.85). He has paid approximately 1800% more for the unreadable text of a book he knows. This has a veneer of sense. The surest sign of superstition.

He is reassured by instances of irrationality in himself. The few instances of irrationality which he finds himself happy to indulge. They make him think communication will not be impossible with those around him, whose unselfconscious irrationality is pervasive and strange. He sometimes mentions them as a conversational gambit, thinking to establish common ground, thinking any error of reason will count as a likable foible. It’s a false security, usually. The irrationality is often the wrong kind of irrationality. He can’t easily tell the right kind from the wrong.

He’s grossly overstating the incomprehensibility of the text. A rough count of proper nouns on pages 12-21 62 yields 35, 28, 17, 28 40, 32, 31, 31, 18 22. Mean number per page 28.2, standard deviation of 6.9, 70% of data within s of the mean. Average number of words per page based on sample of 2,302. So about 9% comprehensibility. High.

The true figure must be slightly higher. The capital letter at the beginning of a sentence conceals any proper noun that occurs there.

His new job is not so different from his old job.

Sometimes the name is something familiar. 56 model Chevrolet. DeSoto. Dodge. Packard. Cadillac. Mainly cars.

But Paris. More often the names are strange. Galip. Rüya. Celal.

9% comprehensibility is like walking the streets of a strange city. Some of the cars are the same. In a public place a famous monument is seen, the Eiffel Tower, Hagia Sofia. The streets are thronged with strangers.

It’s not uncommon to go to strange cities to walk streets thronged with strangers. If this is desirable in a city, it is not easy to see why it should be less desirable in a book. It’s not easy to see why it would be less rational to go to Istanbul than Berlin.

Odada, lacivert perdelerin soldurduğu kurşuni bir kış ışığı vardı. Uyku mahmurluğuyla Galip, karısının mavi yorgandan dışarı uzanan başına baktı: Rüya’nın çenesi yastığın kuştüyüne gömülmüştü. Alnının eğiminde, o sırada aklının içinde olup biten harika şeyleri insana korkuyla merak ettiren gerçekdışı bir yan vardı.

He likes this very much. He skips to the end.

Çünkü hiçbir şey hayat kadar şaşırtıcı olamaz. Yazı hariç. Yazı hariç. Evet tabii, tek teselli yazı hariç.

He can’t remember what it says, but he knows how it ends.

He’s heard that New Life is the one to start with.

A woman is sitting at the next table.

She says, “You read Turkish?”

He says, “No, but I know what it’s about.”

She says, “What’s it about?”

He says, “It’s about a man who loses his wife.”

He should say something else.

She has a book, Bajki robotów. STANISŁAW LEM.

He says, “You read Polish?”

She says, “No, but I know what it’s about.”

He says, “What’s it about?”

She says, “It’s a collection of robot tales.”

She says, “He’s better known as the author of Solaris, if you know Solaris.”

He says, “I know Solaris.”

She says, “But I liked the idea of robot tales.”

He should say something.

He says, “I teach robots to talk.”

She says, “What do you teach them to say?”

He says, “Robots do not understand time. I try to make them distinguish between past and future.”

She says, “How do you make them do that?”

He says, “I make them invent words so they can talk about time among themselves.”

She says, “And how do you make them do that?”

He says, “I use iterative language games.”

The waiter comes with his beer. She says, “Die Rechnung, bitte.”She pays. She leaves.

He wonders if he was too dour.

He’s been talking to robots too long.

A robot is given a set of algorithms. It is necessary to make explicit assumptions that are left unstated in ordinary language. It is necessary to identify and eliminate possible sources of ambiguity. It is necessary to set out the steps in a chain of reasoning. If the robot is to engage in conversation it will need to distinguish between purely formal exchanges and whatever is not purely formal.

The Japanese are exceptionally advanced robotic engineers. He does not think it is pure technical facility. A socially functional Japanese robot is K2. A socially functional American robot is un-American. Joke. It’s Everest.

A socially functional Japanese robot would require the formalization of a range of affective states whose vagueness and resistance to expression are the markers of adept social functioning in Japanese humans.

We can posit a society where natural language makes explicit the algorithms of social interaction within that society.

He’s in his hotel room. He chose a hotel famous for its handsomely renovated Jugendstil fittings, with the idea of assimilating the playfulness a robot requires if it is to be an entertaining companion. It depresses him to be comfortable enough to afford it. He’s been doing too many things too long.

He throws his jacket on the bed. It lands with a dragging pocket.

He slips a hand in.

It’s the other book.

He opens to a page here, a page there.

Words are underlined, sometimes sentences.





Źył raz pewien wielki konstruktor- wynalazca, który nie ustając, wymyślał urządzenia niezwzkąe i najdziwniejsze stwarzał aparaty.

Źył raz pewien inżynier Kosmogonik, który rozjaśniał gwiazdy, żeby pokonać ciemność.

He sees the word robot here and there. He imagines them talking among themselves, chattering in a language where z and w occur in an abundance that looks robot-friendly to a non-Polish human. He can’t really read Polish, his mind blankly pronounces and after a short gap throws up the word in Cyrillic which he knows. Knew.

Sometimes there is no word in Cyrillic. His mind keeps trying to run the search and replace even after he has determined that there is no match. This is a method of cerebration not easily analyzed for robotic intercourse. Does it serve any purpose at all? Is it as irrational as it seems? If a robot is not programmed to replicate this waste of intellectual energy will it be ill-adapted for communication with non-robots? He doesn’t like programming for stupidity.

A sticker on the back cover says it came from

Biała śmierć.

белая смерь.

White death.

The planet Aragona is built underground so that it looks uninhabited from space.


Is this a rational activity? There’s no better thing to do. So there’s no opportunity cost. So it must be rational.

He could have bought himself a square of chocolate, if he’d thought of it.

This by order of the ruler, Metameryk. The inhabitants escaped the destruction of their former planet. Those who destroyed them may hunt them down.


He turns the page.

There’s a knock on the door.