Messy, Borges, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

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,

(b) embalsamados,

(c) amaestrados, 

(d) lechones,

(e) sirenas, 

(f) fabulosos, 

(g) perros sueltos, 

(h) incluidos en esta clasificación, 

(i) que se agitan como locos, 

(j) innumerables, 

(k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello, 

(l) etcétera, 

(m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, 

(n) que de lejos parecen moscas. 


a) belonging to the Emperor,

b) embalmed,

(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:


  1. Belonging to God

  2. Dead

  3. Law-abiding

  4. Babies

  5. Seductive

  6. Star-Shaped

  7. Nomadic

  8. Uncategorised

  9. Crazy

  10. City-Dwellers

  11. Captured on digital image

  12. Other

  13. Having just made something

  14. Having just broken something

  15. Look like slow moving ants






Ideas that don't make sense, Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland  (advertising exec, Oligivy) on his book exploring similar themes on why human stuff works. For instance, we brush our teeth to feel/look good, not to fight teeth holes. We buy more stuff some times when prices go up. That we are really not “rational” most of the time.

His rules...RORY’S RULES OF ALCHEMY: 

The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea. Don’t design for average.

 It doesn’t pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical. 

The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience. A flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget. 

The problem with logic is that it kills off magic. 

A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident. 

Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will. 

Solving problems using rationality is like playing golf with only one club. 

Dare to be trivial. 

If there were a logical answer, we would have found it.

*

Chimes with the study showing in the real world, people hand back wallets with money over those with no money… https://www.thendobetter.com/investing/2019/6/29/civic-honesty-wallets-with-money-more-likely-to-handed-back

I wonder what the Founder of Oligvy would have thoughts: https://www.thendobetter.com/investing/2017/7/29/oglivy-principles-of-management

The book along with Messy by Tim Hartford well worth a read.


In defence of Arts Education investment

"...The returns on investment in performing arts are significant, but the strength of any country and its people is about far more than the financial wealth it generates. We must challenge the dangerous narrative that equates success with the level of a graduate’s income and which reduces education to a financial transaction. If we don’t, we risk losing the next generation of artists and all that they contribute to our wellbeing and society…”

David Ruebain makes the case for protecting arts and creative education not only because of a financial return but because of its creative and social capital. This is a move that New Zealand is trying to capture more of by setting its budget by more than only looking at GDP.

The conservatoire David leads has one of the only Circus perfoming arts schools in the UK in its federation. The teaching of this art form we may be losing due to continued cuts to arts education.

His op-ed here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/20/if-we-dont-protect-arts-education-well-lose-the-next-generation-of-performers

On New Zealand and non-financial capitals: https://www.thendobetter.com/investing/2019/2/24/new-zealand-looking-at-non-financial-capitals

And here you can see a YT of the Circus School:

Asian American, published and tours Asia, Winnie Li

Here my friend Winnie Li shares an opinion essay about the types of narratives Western publishers/platforms expect of Asians and Asian-American creatives  - and how work can be perceived differently on the other side of the world. Touches upon identity and the narratives we tell.

“...I am glad my Korean publishers recognized the value of promoting an Asian American female author to Asian women readers, but our readerships shouldn’t be limited by race.  It is truly a shame if Western publishers perceive a problematic gap between the race of an author and the race of a book’s intended readers—because there are readers of all ethnicities in the West, and we are all capable of empathy.  And literature, after all, is meant to transcend such human particularities. As a Taiwanese American girl growing up in the U.S., I certainly identified with characters who didn’t come from a world anything like mine: Scout Finch, Holden Caulfield, Bigger Thomas. And indeed, it works the other way around. I’ve had white male readers say that reading Dark Chapter made them understand a bit better what it’s like to be a woman, who cried reading the scenes of the heroine’s experience of the criminal justice system. So if they can identify with a Taiwanese American heroine, then that’s already one step towards progress….”

https://electricliterature.com/being-published-in-asia-changed-everything-about-my-asian-american-writer-experience/

Why America is called America

Why America is called America and the power of acknowledging “We Don’t Know”

From Harari’s Sapiens: “During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces–one indication of the development of the scientific mindset, as well as of the European imperial drive. The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world. The crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia. Columbus still believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps. Using them, he calculated that Japan should have been located about 7,000 kilometres west of Spain. In fact, more than 20,000 kilometres and an entire unknown continent separate East Asia from Spain.


On 12 October 1492, at about 2 a.m., Columbus’ expedition collided with the unknown continent. Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, watching from the mast of the ship Pinta, spotted an island in what we now call the Bahamas, and shouted ‘Land! Land!’ Columbus believed he had reached a small island off the East Asian coast. He called the people he found there ‘Indians’ because he thought he had landed in the Indies–what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago. Columbus stuck to this error for the rest of his life. The idea that he had discovered a completely unknown continent was inconceivable for him and for many of his generation.


For thousands of years, not only the greatest thinkers and scholars but also the infallible Scriptures had known only Europe, Africa and Asia. Could they all have been wrong? Could the Bible have missed half the world? It would be as if in 1969, on its way to the moon, Apollo 11 had crashed into a hitherto unknown moon circling the earth, which all previous observations had somehow failed to spot. In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.


The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504. Between 1502 and 1504, two texts describing these expeditions were published in Europe. They were attributed to Vespucci. These texts argued that the new lands discovered by Columbus were not islands off the East Asian coast, but rather an entire continent unknown to the Scriptures, classical geographers and contemporary Europeans. In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller published an updated world map, the first to show the place where Europe’s westward-sailing fleets had landed as a separate continent. Having drawn it, Waldseemüller had to give it a name. Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person who discovered it, Waldseemüller named the continent in his honour–America. The Waldseemüller map became very popular and was copied by many other cartographers, spreading the name he had given the new land. There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’...”


Amazon link to Sapiens here.

Stephen Jeffrey’s Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

Stephen Jeffrey’s manual on how to write plays is brilliant. He had a celebrated series of workshops he used to do, although I never made it to one. The book covers character, form, structure and story in one of the most accessible, comprehensive and erudite fashion. Great for an enthusiastic beginner or seasoned writer alike.

One short passage “your characters do not necessarily understand their motivations, and that the gap between characters’ stated intentions and their deeper motivations is a very fruitful area for the playwright. Indeed, you may not fully understand your character yourself. During rehearsals for the second production of my play The Libertine, I asked John Malkovich, who was playing the Earl of Rochester, what he thought the play was actually about. He replied by saying that he thought Rochester was a man who had been given every conceivable physical and intellectual gift and had quite deliberately proceeded to waste them. On hearing this for the first time, I not only understood my play, but realised for the first time why I had written it. In a sense, the characters you write will never be entirely knowable, just as you will never entirely understand the people you meet in life..."

If you are interested in the structure of plays (and also film and some similarities/differences), I can recommend it.

Stephen Jeffrey’s Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

How not to bore your audience at a reading, Viet Thanh Nguyen

“Am I the only one who finds literary readings boring? I usually avoided them. Then I had to go on book tour and tried not to bore people. I learned to think of myself as a performer rather than a reader.”

Here are some tips for writers who have to speak in front of audiences:

1. Do not be defensive and think that you are a writer and that writing is different from performing. I have seen poets who say that the words on the page are what matter and therefore they will read them with minimal interpretation. I invite them to do so in the privacy of their own rooms, because listening to them in public was painful (for me). …

2. Perform from a script rather than just read your book. I also like to blow up my font to 16- or 18-point size to make the text easier to see.

3. Make eye contact with your audience. Not just once or twice. Regularly. This will help keep the audience involved.

4. Do not just read 20- to 40-minutes straight while never looking up from your book and speaking in a soft monotone. PLEASE.

5. Consider reading just short excerpts and insert them into a story you are telling or a talk about some larger issue. Imagine what the larger story or talk is about

6. 
If you’re lucky enough to get an auditorium, dim the lights to get your audience in the mood for a performance. 

8.
Dress up, whatever that means to you.
 A vintage outfit, a motorcycle jacket, a cowboy hat. T.C. Boyle looks like a punk rock statesman.

9.
Consider visual aids
. T.C. Boyle has the advantage of actual movies made from his work that he can show. For my initial tour of The Sympathizer, I had a friend make a three-minute highlight reel from American movies of the war in Viet Nam.

10.
If you just cannot perform, consider having someone interview you
.

11.
Writing programs should teach their students how to perform.
 Just a one-unit course. 

12.
Last, bring energy to the room.
 Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand

Full details in his article at Lithub here.

See some Zadie Smith writing tips here.