Jorge Luis Borges once told of the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’, a fabled Chinese encyclopedia.
This tome, according to Borges (highly likely Borges invented these himself), organised animals into categories:
(a) pertenecientes al Emperador,
(g) perros sueltos,
(h) incluidos en esta clasificación,
(i) que se agitan como locos,
(k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello,
(m) que acaban de romper el jarrón,
(n) que de lejos parecen moscas.
a) belonging to the Emperor,
(c) trained (or tame; Eliot Weinburg translates as tame, but trained is more literal),
(d) suckling pigs (Weinburg) or piglets,
(e) Sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs [EW] (or loose dogs),
(h) included in this classification [present classification, EW],
(i) frenzied [EW] (or crazed or agitated like crazy), (
j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair, (
l) et cetera (m) having just broken the vase (EW water pitcher], (
n) that from afar seem like flies [that from a long way off like like flies, EW]
[ offer my own translation alongside the classic one attrib. to Eliot Weinberger, I think]
Borges wrote these in response to John Wilkins (a 17th century philospher) who had proposed a universal language and classification system.
Tim Harford in Messy offers this:
This looks like a joke, but like other Borgesian jokes, it is serious. Most of these apparently absurd categories have practical merit. Sometimes we need to classify things according to who owns them; at other times we must describe their physical attributes, and different physical attributes will matter in different contexts. Sometimes we must be terribly specific–a cat is not a good substitute for a sucking pig if you are preparing a feast, and if we are to punish wrongdoing (whether breaking a pitcher or committing an armed robbery) we must identify the wrongdoer and no one else. But while each category is useful, in combination they are incoherent, and the encyclopedia sounds delectably unusable. Borges shows us why trying to categorise the world is not as straightforward as we like to believe. Our categories can map to practical real-world cases or they can be neat and logical, but rarely both at once.”
It’s a wonderous and insightful riposte to clean tidiness of exact categories.
Maybe he could have said of humans:
Belonging to God
Captured on digital image
Having just made something
Having just broken something
Look like slow moving ants