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






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.

Philip Roth on writing

If you write every day, eventually you’ll have a book.

I can’t explain the fact that there have been a series of books coming rather regularly out of me. I work most days and if you work most days and you get at least a page done a day, then at the end of the year you have 365.

-from a 2009 interview with Tina Brown for The Daily Beast

Learn to edit yourself.

Part of being a writer is being able to read what you’ve written and see what’s missing, see what needs development, see what’s suggested by what you wrote. It’s like a trampoline. You know, you’re jumping up and down on this draft, and each jump is an idea.

-from an interview with Robert Siegel at NPR

Write towards what works for the story (or for you).

You go with what’s alive. Two thousand pages of narrative and six lines of dialogue may be just the ticket for one writer, and two thousand pages of dialogue and six lines of narrative the solution for another.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Work sentence by sentence.

Solving the problem of the book you’re writing always remains hard work, and your progress is snail-like. Even if you write a book in two years, sometimes you get a page a day, sometimes you get no pages … every sentence raises a problem, and essentially what you’re doing is connecting one sentence to the next. And you write a sentence and you have to figure out what comes next or what doesn’t come next.

-from a 2013 interview with NPR

World echoing language and lacuna choices

Four observations on the power of language and lacuna.

Language can take us out of context. But, language and artistic choices will and should always reflect the wider world, when made public.

The choice to use a puppet to portray a severely autistic boy in a recent play in London has had much criticism from the wider world outside the play.*The creative decision is mediocre, but beyond that the social political world beyond the play cannot be ignored. We live in a world of metaphor and symbols.

The decision for a German CEO to use words that echo the phrase that appears on the entrance of Nazi Auschwitz, even if accidental shows a lack of judgment for the reflection it would bring to the wider  Germanic world.

The casting of a queer-phobic actor into a leading bisexual role (the Color Purple) has echoed angrily and awkwardly with queer audiences and creatives.

On the flip side, the New Zealand Prime Minster, Jacinda Ardern has evoked  “Damnatio memoriae”. In Roman times the state condemned the memory of a person and erased their name from history, it’s been done within many civilizations.

"I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless."

She’s condemned the recent terrorist to no name, such that their cause and “fame” fail.

Our words and actions echo like small and major myths. If you will speak to the wider world, the world will judge what words and actions you use.

*

https://www.thendobetter.com/arts/2019/3/6/autism-stories-representation-and-all-in-a-row-review

CEO blunder:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47566898

UK casting of Color Purple

http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/color-purple-gets-play-gay/

No name to the terrorist.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-47620630