Two, Four, Six, Eight…Time to Transubstantiate! (or, The Homograph Matters)
for catalog of Paul Paiement exhibition at Laguna Art Museum, Published by Laguna Wilderness Press, 2005.

It is no surprise that two of the greatest masters of illusion, Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle, were friends. The magician and mystery writer are both master manipulators, making the impossible possible in our lives. In the magic show, we know there must be some sleight of hand and trickery, but it is invisible and therefore seems not to exist. In the mystery novel, we are taken along on a different kind of ride, often “presented” with a dead body and a situation that seems straightforward. Nevertheless, the writer also has “something up his sleeve.” Though the situation may seem baffling, with many possible theories of the crime, by the end our writer delivers the correct malfeasant to the jury. We love that special something, the energy, the excitement of the unknown, the build-up of the “drum-roll please!” instant.

Michelangelo’s Captive Slave, half un-carved, half stunning musculature—bursts with “stored energy“ and ”impending changes.” Art historian Kenneth Clark describes the tension of Captive Slave in Civilization like this: “To some extent the rough marble is like a shadow in a Rembrandt- a means of concentrating on the parts that are felt most intensely; but it also seems to imprison the figures—in fact they are always known as the prisoners, although there is no sign of bonds or shackles. As with the finished captives one feels that they express Michelangelo’s deepest preoccupation: the struggle of the soul to free itself from matter.” The title of the work is indeed a poignant pleonasm, in which the redundancy somehow doubles the title’s effect, and the soul’s struggle holds the viewers captive, too.

But this preoccupation isn’t just Michelangelo’s. This struggle of the soul versus matter, (or for the secular person, of the immaterial versus the physical), is one of the most fundamental human questions.

The development of the cyborg (a man-machine meld) in the twentieth century parallels Michaelangelo’s Captive Slave. Cyborgs are also in the midst of transformation, being neither man nor machine. Chris Hables Gray notes that the first serious scientific proposal of a man/machine was made by the British scientist J. D. Bernal, who wrote in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1926) that “humans involved in colonizing space should take control of their evolutionary destiny through genetic engineering, prosthetic surgery, and hard-wired electric interfaces between humans and machines." (Bernal 1929, p. 26)”

Norbert Weiner’s 1948 pivotal book, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine gave us the word “cybernetic.” He chose “cyber” from the Greek word for “steersman.” In 1960 Manfred Clynes invented the word cyborg, which is an amalgam of cybernetic and organism, to marry the concrete reality of the organic body with the abstractions of cybernetics. Following in Bernal’s footsteps, Clynes considered modifications that could be made for possible advances in human space exploration, ways in which humans and spacecraft could become interpenetrated systems that shared information and energy. (1)

While none of these scientists intended to conjure up images of Swartzeneger’s The Terminator, the cybernetic idea has provided a scrumptious buffet for science fiction writers. The creative team at Star Trek: The Next Generation went to the heart of it. Cybernetic Organism = Cyborg = Borg. In their original idea for costuming, the Borg was to have an insect-like appearance to suggest the “hive mind” of collective consciousness. Unfortunately, this concept was too expensive. So it morphed into “cybernetic zombies” that were easier, cheaper and more comfortable for an actor in a suit. (2)

In literature, too, like Pygmalion and his Galatea, or Geppetto and his Pinocchio, there are many myths and fables of man fumbling to invest mere matter with a soul. Ovid’s two- thousand- year-old epic Metamorphosis contains the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who carves a woman from stone and names it Galatea. He falls in love with it and prays to Venus to give him a girlfriend as cool as his statue. Venus instead brings the statue to life, and Pygmalion and Galatea live happily ever after. A more recent, less optimistic metamorphosis story is Franz Kafka’s.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . . So begins Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which the main character suddenly finds himself transformed into a large cockroach. We learn through the story that Gregor has struggled to find his soul, but that he is mired in the matter of his turn-of the-century life—a life manipulated by convention and by polite, but for him worthless, manners. And so he awakens one day to find he has become the thing he fears he may be—an outcast and pariah—a cockroach. But Kafka’s use of a bug in Metamorphosis also plays against our own relationship to insects and their expected transformations. Many insects alter throughout their lives, evolved to incrementally change form as they develop into adults. The chrysalis, in which the larvae form rests before transforming into a butterfly, is a common metaphor for the stage preceding an act of change. (3) Unfortunately, Gregor The Cockroach is not going to make a cocoon and become a lovely butterfly.

Words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same are called “homophones.” Hence, soul and sole, alter and altar, pray and prey, and right, rite, write and wright, are homophone sets. Two or more words that are spelt exactly the same but which have different meanings are termed “homographs.” Hence, matter (substance) and matter (have meaning) and matter (the issue at hand) are homographs. Homographs do not have to have the same pronunciation. Two or more words that are either spelled the same or pronounced the same, or both, are referred to as “homonyms.” So, any word pair or group that are homophones or homographs are also homonyms.

A specific sort of homograph is a “zeugma,” literally a “yoking together” involving one word’s being a part of two constructions. “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” Groucho Marx’s great pun, has the zeugmas of both “flies” and “like.” Both words are also homographs, meaning that they are two words spelt the same and pronounced the same but with entirely different meanings. It is their usage in the sentence that makes for the zeugma. The thrill of a zeugma is that the instant of recognition of the word is quickly altered as it is read the second time. Suddenly the word—the same word you just read and which made sense a moment ago—now makes no sense whatsoever.

Humor relies on such word play for effect. Often it is the very absurdity of the juxtapositions that make the whole thing flow. As lyricist Tom Lehr famously put it in “The Vatican Rag”:

"Get in line in that processional/ Step into that small confessional/ There, the guy who's got religion'll/ Tell you if your sin's original/ If it is, try playin' it safer/ Drink the wine and chew the wafer/ Two, four, six, eight/ Time to transubstantiate!"

In this case, the first part brings to mind sweating locker rooms, touchdowns and three point shots—but the ending takes one to an entirely immaterial place. From the first bars of “The Vatican Rag” on, it is funny. And, of course, the whole topic is desperately out of context with the syncopation of ragtime music. Everything is out of context, but the shock in the recognition of the disparate elements, newly combined in a rhyming scheme, makes sense in a pure and absurdist way.

Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag,” appears in his 1965 album That Was the Year That Was. Transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic doctrine that the sanctified bread and the wine of the Eucharist becomes the actual substance of the body and blood of Christ is one of the all-time heavy-hitters in the battle of material versus immaterial. Participation in the Holy Eucharist, (also known as Holy Communion), is an effort to commune with the next life and as such requires the magic of true belief. In the year “The Vatican Rag” was written, the Ecumenical Council in Rome (Vatican II) was deciding whether or not to the spoken mass should be said in Latin or (at least parts) in the vernacular. The Church itself morphed, and Latin was dismissed from Mass. Holy Mother Church, in effect, lowered the bar to maintain its membership. Lehrer found it funny that the Church would morph in that particular way, basically in an effort to connect with parishioners, and so he offered “The Vatican Rag” as a way to “really sell the product.” (4)

At about the same time that Tom Lehrer was recontextualizing history, Wendy Carlos was electrifying it. Her Switched on Bach and the soundtrack from A Clockwork Orange were brilliant introductions to electronic music that changed the music listening habits for generations of listeners. According to Carlos, the electronic music that had been released previously contained “dissonance, dodecaphony, aleatory, avoidance of melody, harmony, and all other such features of modern music that made it such an alien, hostile listening experience for many.” She thought that offering tradition-bound classical music in a non-traditional form might be way to introduce the opportunities available in the synthetic medium. Carlos chose pieces by easily recognizable composers like Bach, Monteverdi, and Beethoven, thereby finding a way to make the new medium relevant to the casual listener who started with something familiar and had to endure only the shock of hearing it in the new context. Carlos said she herself was shocked at the success of the venture, noting the “colors” of even the earliest synthetic music. She says that she and frequent collaborator Bob Moog “pulled a rabbit out of a hat, so to speak, and created an illusion even good enough to fool Bob” on the Switched On Bach recordings. Synthesizing voice, however, was much harder than synthesizing instrumental music and was much less well received. As popular as synthesized music later turned out to be, Carlos says that the early Vocorder (5) pieces (including the awesome March From A Clockwork Orange (Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement, Abridged)) were at first despised! In the beginning, people refused to accept the cybernetic nature of these transitional works. (6)

Wendy Carlos has said that it simply took the listening public awhile to accustom themselves to the unfamiliar sound of the electronic translations of synthetic music. The acclimation period—that is, the time it takes a person (or a culture) to assimilate progress—is written about extensively by the best travel writers; Paul Bowles, an American who lived most of his life in Tangier, is among the very best. Many people reach out through travel to find what they think will be safe, controlled and predictable moments of discovery. But air travel makes it so easy to physically transport oneself to another world that the mind doesn’t have time to catch up. Bowles wrote his innovative stories from the perspective of someone who has migrated and greatly assimilated into an alien culture, but who hasn’t forgotten who he “really” is and who can’t fathom why others don’t “see” who he is, too. His tales are frightening and eerie stories of displacement. Their portrayal of strangeness and terror, of people out of their element, and especially of that instant when they finally realize their loss of coherent identity is a potent one (“Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore!”). (7)

“A light at the end of the tunnel” is often associated with awakenings and awareness. One might assume the light at the end of tunnel conveys a positive connotation—but we’d be wrong. The common use of the phrase dates from the time of the Viet Nam War, when apologists for the administration assured the public that the war was going well and that they could clearly “see the light at the end of the tunnel.” It was only propaganda and public relations. Poet and anti-war activist Robert Lowell gave it an entirely new spin in a sardonic line, now quoted in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. According to Lowell, “If we see a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of an oncoming train.”

Lowell was a fascinating literary figure. Patrician son of one of the New England’s most respected families, he struggled all his life against bi-polar disorder. For the person with bi-polar/manic depressive disorders, the Cartesian manifesto of identity, cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) can be a monumental mystery. How is the soul to ever suss out its struggles if it can’t even find home base? Gregor Samsa, our metamorphic cockroach, literally “climbs the walls,” a punning representation of the actions of the mentally-challenged. Or perhaps living with bi-polar disorder is like living the Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten, in which the whole of existence evolves and morphs from outer space to the tiniest inner-space. Humbling and not in any way finite or controllable.
Another “light at the end of the tunnel’ is the supposed great white light we see as we approach death. If Tom Lehrer’s album That was the Year That Was were a person, it would be 39 years old today, that odd precipice of an age in which one ponders a now-past youth and begins to wonder about what might be left. Middle age is an odd phenomenon, probably best approached with both eyes open. The body begins to change (crow’s feet, slow ailment recovery, and short-term memory failure are some of its unhappy but familiar accompaniments). A change, you might even say a chrysalis if you were being generous, can envelop the mind to help one keep pace with increasing thoughts of mortality.

Death is either the ultimate morphing or a grand finale to the struggle. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross did us all a great service by identifying the five stages (or changes, if you will) that we go through in approaching death. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. One of the best films about this process is Bob Fosse’s autobiographical All That Jazz from 1979. Joe Gideon, the Fosse character, is a choreographer obsessed with drink and sex as much as with dance. It is a film about attitudes and how our understanding, denial, or acceptance alters our reality. In classic “film-within-a-film/which-one-is-real?” style, Gideon is also editing a documentary of a comedian, and he can’t sort out a scene in which the comedian is describing the Kubler-Ross stages. Gideon looks at the clip over and over, utterly confused as to how to proceed; stuck as he is in his own miserable denial, he can’t evolve mentally out of his youthful excesses, and so he edges ever closer to Death (a radiant Jessica Lang—which might show something about Fosse’s own ambivalence towards the usually skeletal Grim Reaper.) In the grand-finale song spree “Bye Bye Love,” which portrays Gideon’s high-stepping journey into the great white light (nobody does musical movies like Bob Fosse), there is a great line, uttered by Ben Vereen about Gideon: “Like for this cat, the only reality, is death.”

Life is an unreliable and imperfect affair. But that is good enough. And so I go now, to watch the butterflies in the backyard, and ponder just what they have set in motion.


(1) Many of the math folks seem to be members of the “Music is my Bag” club. Dr. Clynes, besides being a math wiz, is also a renowned concert pianist who received his Masters from Julliard. In fact, after hearing him play at his home, Albert Einstein wrote him: "Your art combines a clear understanding of the inner structure of the music with a rare spontaneity of expression...."

(2) An amusing little sidebar rumor-factoid for So-Cal Trekkies. Maurice Hurley is a graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, CA. He lived for a while in a dorm there named 'Oldenborg,' Students in the know called it 'The Borg.' Oldenborg is the only dorm that has both a dining hall and classrooms. Thus it is actually possible to spend an entire semester, attend all of your classes, and never leave the building. Due to this self-sufficiency and to the fact that the dorm has some long strange corridors, and weird twists and turns in which to get really lost, its residents were accused of “assimilating” into “The Borg.” And in a lovely Being John Malkovich moment, the two dorm wings do not quite line up with the central area, so instead of just a first and a second floor, there's actually a 1 1/2 floor in part of the building. Talk about your split-level!

(3) It was Edward Lorenz’ 1962 paper which eventually evolved into Chaos Theory. We all know Chaos Theory by the question “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” The imagery in that question works well because of the transformations that becoming a butterfly implies. Most people have that frame of mind already in place as we think about the butterfly stage itself as something previously set in motion.

(4) Yup, another club member. Although he’s famous for the dry satire, his “day job” was math. A Harvard educated mathematician, Lehrer taught math at University of California, Santa Cruz until he retired just a few years ago.

(5) The Vocoder was invented by Homer Dudley, a Bell Labs guy, in the mid-1930's. It is the first voice synthesizer. The name is an amalgam of voice and coder.

(6) Speaking of phenomenal transitions, how about the gender dysphoria that brought Walter Carlos to become Wendy? Although she calls herself “the original synth” on her website, Wendy Carlos did go through tremendous transformations even before the final surgery that brought her physical form into alignment with her psychological experience of self. Does the successful transgender soul succeed at freeing itself from matter? At the least, a successful switch in gender, like Wendy Carlos has made, would indicate a dominant presence of an interior life that perpetuates beyond mere matter. In effect, the transgender says, that the essence of a person does not reside in their physical form.

(7) “Music is my bag” charter member Bowles was also a brilliant composer. He was a dear friend of Aaron Copeland, and for a while he (and wife Jane Bowles) shared a home with W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. You can hear some of his piano pieces at

Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation Harper and Row Publishers, New York NY, 1969, p. 126. and Bernal, J.D., (1929) The World, The Flesh and the Devil, London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner.
Weiner, Norbert, Cybernetics p. 11
Carlos, Wendy Secrets of Synthesis Compact disk. CBS Music, Compilation, 1987.
Kaplan, Justin, general editor, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotes, Little Brown and Co. Boston. 1992, p. 741.