intellectual vanities… about close to everything

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Borges’ “Library of Babel” On Internet? – The Million Book Project

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The Million Book Project, an international venture led by Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, Zhejiang University in China, the Indian Institute of Science in India and the Library at Alexandria in Egypt, has completed the digitization of more than 1.5 million books, which are now available online.

Borges’ “The Library of Babel.”
Borges believes in the “infinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Throughout the writing, he creates a complex labyrinth for us to think about. Only a few thousand words long, Borges’ story draws us into a world both deeply familiar and utterly surreal. I question is, why the “absolute shape, or at least our perception of space” is hexagonal. What about cirular shapes? Is it really “illogical to think that the world is infinite?”

For the first time since the project was initiated in 2002, all of the books, which range from Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” to “The Analects of Confucius,” are available through a single Web portal of the Universal Library, said Gloriana St. Clair, Carnegie Mellon’s dean of libraries.

“Anyone who can get on the Internet now has access to a collection of books the size of a large university library,” said Raj Reddy, professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon. “This project brings us closer to the ideal of the Universal Library: making all published works available to anyone, anytime, in any language. The economic barriers to the distribution of knowledge are falling,” said Reddy, who has spearheaded the Million Book Project.

Though Google, Microsoft and the Internet Archive all have launched major book digitization projects, the Million Book Project represents the world’s largest, university-based digital library of freely accessible books. At least half of its books are out of copyright, or were digitized with the permission of the copyright holders, so the complete texts are or eventually will be available free.

The collection includes a large number of rare and orphan books. More than 20 languages are represented among the 1.5 million books, a little more than 1 percent of all of the world’s books.

Many of the books, particularly those in Chinese and English, have been digitized — their text converted by optical character recognition methods into computer readable text. That allows these books to be searched and, eventually, reformatted for access by PDAs and other devices.

An outgrowth of Reddy’s Universal Library, the Million Book Project received $3.5 million in seed funding from the National Science Foundation and substantial in-kind contributions from hardware and software manufacturers. These funds were primarily used to purchase scanning equipment and for developing the scanning, digitization and cataloguing methods necessary for creating a large digital library.

The vast majority of the scanning, digitization and cataloguing has been performed at centers in China and India, where more than 1.1 million and 360,000 books have been scanned, respectively. The U.S., China and India provided $10 million each in cash and in-kind contributions to the project. More recently, the Library at Alexandria, Egypt, has joined the effort. Now, about 7,000 books are scanned daily by more than 1,000 workers worldwide.

“Digital libraries constitute an essential part of the future of the developing world,” said Ismail Serageldin, director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “This requires that we approach conditions governing copyright, digital archiving and scientific databases with a view to creating two-tier systems of access to information that would allow access to such data from developing countries for a nominal fee or for free.”

Though the long-term goal of the Universal Library is to make books, artwork and other published works available online for free, about half of the current collection remains under copyright. Until the permission of the copyright holders can be documented, or copyright laws are amended, only 10 percent or less of those books can be accessed at no cost.

The project has surpassed one million books, but the participants are looking to expand to all countries and eventually every language. At the Third Annual International Conference on Universal Digital Library, held at Carnegie Mellon Nov. 2-4, 2007, the partners in the Million Book Project agreed to continue scanning, to enlist more centers for the scanning of rare and unique materials, and to work on governmental solutions to the problem of books which are out of print but still in copyright.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University.

Written by huehueteotl

December 6, 2007 at 4:23 pm

Burrhus Frederic Skinner – Walden Two

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I always have admired B. F. Skinner’s daring experiments, rooting in a line of research dating back to Hull and Pawlow. And I always thought that he was unduely bashed for alegedly transposing the “Sinner Trap” into contexts of human behavior or social structures. Until I came to read Walden Two, written in 1945 and Walden Two Revisited, from 1976. walden-two.jpg

Referring to the Thoreauvian Walden, its outline makes use of a narrative structure known since Plato and much in use until the eighteenth century – the didactic dialogue between master and pupil. Like in Cosí fan tutte, there is a “philosopher” added for the fun of it, who doubts everything, and who – thank God – in the end is not converted. There are a few more pale figures, but as B. F. Skinner is as bad as a fictional author, as he is as an author of social utopies, they hardly gain any contour at all. For a pity, he turns out to be not much of a philosopher either, whence the philosopher in his novel is neither entertaining nor convincing. But more to this later.

This influential book created quite a stir when it was first published in 1948, so much so, that many people actually started forming intentional, egalitarian communes and existing ones embraced many of the ideas of social structure presented in “Walden Two”. Further, Aldus Huxley, author of “Brave New World”, was so impressed with the ideas presented in “Walden Two”, that he incorporated and expanded on them in his last novel, “Island” (which I certainly prefer for its literary quality and its philosophical dimension).

Skinner’s basic premise here is, that with behavioral modifications using positive re-enforcement and academics, coupled with leveling the social playing field with no class structure our hyper-competitive, private enterprise, we could then concentrate all of our energies on education and entertainment, thereby removing most all of the ills and stress that conventional society suffers from – sounds enticing but a bit fascistoid too. I am really glad, nobody did try this for real on a social scale.

His very clinical approach to human behavioral studies was often criticized. Some claim he is abandoning free will, some thank him for having discovered that they have one, abandoning God after having read him. He himself was always quick to point out that he had no interest in debate on his methods. So what is this all about? Psychological understandings of the ultimates in human nature are characterized by the fact that rather than making appeal to traditional theological understandings, the psychoanalytic, psychological, and psychiatric endeavors fit themselves as best they can within the scientific framework that has slowly emerged in the West over the six or seven centuries since the beginning of scientific reasoning in the Middle Ages. This marked a revolutionary change in discourses, as M. Foucoult put it. Discourses govern existing groups of statements and regulate the generation and distribution of new statements. In circular fashion, a statement is defined as meaningful if it is statable within a discourse. The rules of discursive formation do not mandate specific truth-values for specific statements, but open up a delimited space in which some statements can be meaningfully expressed and understood. Foucault also at this point introduced his concept of the episteme, defined as the set of internal relations that unite the discursive practices that give rise to the sciences. The episteme is not a method or form of knowledge or type of rationality, but simply the totality of relations, e.g. the relations of similarity, analogy, and difference, that give rise to discursive regularities and thus give unity to a discursive formation. This includes the way in which the reasonable has been demarcated from the unreasonable, the true from the false, and the intelligible from the unintelligible.

Like the structuralists Foucault sees discourses as generative and not simply organizational. A fully articulated belief emerges from the prescriptions of a discourse which provides both resources and limitations for the possibilities of cognition. But this account is not necessarily inconsistent with realism: discourses do not determine the truth-value that any given belief has but whether it can have a truth-value. Discourses govern the generation of statements whereas epistemes, at a more distant position, govern the ways in which objects can be constructed and justificatory procedures can be imagined.

The development of scientific knowledge is always guided by a “body of anonymous, historical rules, always determined in the time and space that have defined a given period, and for a given social, economic, geographical, or linguistic area…”(Foucault 1972). As such the Renaissance marked the beginning of a great dying off of a particular cultural discourse about man’s ultimate nature at the same time.

Among the set of epistemes that emerged from the Renaissance transformation of discourse, science – and the technology that derives from it- are certainly one of the most powerful to which we are heir. In keeping with the Renaissance spirit, a primary goal of any modern, scientific psychology has been to understand human subjectivity and behavior – including those areas that touch on morals, meaning, purpose, and value, and therefore on human motivation and choice – not in terms of ultimate purpose but in terms of prior causes.

In the domain of psychology or psychoanalysis proper, this search for causes inevitably means the reduction of what appears to be a freely acting or choosing agent-man to prior, more elementary influences: complexes, structures of the psyche, family influences, earlier experiences, archetypes. In the complementary domain of biological psychiatry, this same reduction is to the organic substrates of these functional subsystems at ever finer levels of detail. (It was one inspired chairman who opened an international congress of neurosciences with the remark, that if our brain was simple enough, that we could understand it, we could not understand it anymore…)

From within this truly analytic framework – analysis consisting of the lysis or breaking down of a whole into constituent parts – all areas of seeming autonomy within human experience are illusory, the residue, as it were, of our ignorance of the true causes that lie “beneath” our experience and cause it, and which only for the time being remain obscured.

If one leaves principles of General Semantics aside, the scientific study of man thus seems to aim ultimately at his abolition as man – as free agent of his own will in moral terms – and his reconstruction as mechanism.

Upon closer examination, any analytical notion of free – indeed creatively free – choice remaining somewhere outside the scope of analytic reduction means just, that the process of analyzing motives at some point stops, and what remains we decide not to examine further. From a therapeutic perspective this makes sense: the surgeon cuts away the diseased tissue and allows the healthy tissue to remain, better functioning after the operation than before.

In its very essence the analytic, scientific method is reductive without limit. Applied to man, it is the universal solvent. The alchemists, who first conceived such a thing, of course never found the universal solvent, and were fortunate not to. For they never considered what would happen if ever they laid hands on it: nothing could contain it; it would eat its way through everything, devouring even its creators.

Skinner, in this perspective, presents himself as an exponent of modern determinism. Skinner believes that all human behavior is completely controlled by genetic and environmental factors. These factors do not rule out the fact that human beings make choices; however, they do rule out the possibility that human choices are free. For Skinner, all human choices are determined by antecedent physical causes. Hence, man is viewed as an instrumental cause of his behavior. He is like a knife in the hands of a butcher or a hammer in the grip of a carpenter; he does not originate action but is the instrument through which some other agent performs the action.

As a science, psychology thus inevitably tends toward an amoral view of man, in just the same way that it tends toward a view of him that has no place for free will and choice. Some psychologists have had the courage- if that is indeed what it is: foolhardiness might be a better term; intellectual consistency, at least-to claim that if the scientific view of man is both true and complete, and if this view leads inevitably to the abolition of “man” as embodied in such concepts as “freedom” and “goodness” (and consequent upon these, such concepts as “dignity” and “nobility of character”), why then, let us be truly abstemious and do away with them entirely, as has proposed B. F. Skinner.

But no more than Freud can Skinner pull himself up by his bootstraps to an Archimedean point of psychological leverage above his own dual being, instinctively selfish as anyone else, yet longing for something good beyond mere selfishness. For when asked, “Who shall lead us into this brave new world?” he chooses . . . himself, of course, and can find no better metaphor for this vaunted role than that of Jesus Christ the savior of mankind. Yet when asked to what end, he replies that it will make a better-not merely “an inevitable,” “a better”-world.

Understandably, it does not please many either, that his story characters had embraced such social quirks as seeing no benefit in saying “thank you” and many other social graces- this is probably Skinner’s personality coming through looking at social graces as a waste of time. Level-headed, nothing-to-hide, and non-competitive people supposedly don`t need that nonsense.

Did Skinner miss something in the demonstrated efficacy of social courtesy? No matter, he lets many of his characters have their conventional, “good” social habits- he has to, to show contrast.

The communal setting the book describes is egalitarian, fair and desires no material gain other than normal sustenance. Labor needs are divvied-up at the start of each day and earn the communards “work credits” to ensure that they work a minimal amount for their keep. Over-work is discouraged and considered counter-productive, education and entertainment are much more important and with a large labor pool, daily chores can be completed quickly.

New incoming members must agree to the communities social dictates: “The Walden Code” , a set of easy rules of conduct for harmony in the communal setting. Administrative members called “Planners” have a bit more leeway and can over-ride the rules when dealing with the outside world. All social positions are on a rotating basis including work, to facilitate an even distribution of duties so everyone can gain experience of the total spectrum of communal life.

What became of the communities that formed on Skinner’s ideas? Many of them are still going and the most renown one modeled completely around Walden Two, “Twin Oaks Community”, is still at it. Kathleen “Kat” Kinkade, one of the founding members, wrote a book about the “real” experimental commune, “A Walden Two Experiment”- Foreword by Skinner himself.

Skinner’s book itself however, is not a monument to fine novel writing and was not intended to be, yet it is fascinating and eye-opening as a fictional dissertation on utopian social structure.

Written by huehueteotl

October 6, 2007 at 12:15 am

Zhuangzi – Nan Hua Zhen Jing (The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua)

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Dschuang Dsi: Das wahre Buch vom südlichen Blütenland. Übersetzt von Richard Wilhelm, Anaconda


(From Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization : A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 28-31)

Hui Shi said to Zhuangzi, “I have a large tree, of the sort people call a shu tree. Its trunk is too gnarled for measuring lines to be applied to it, its branches are too twisted for use with compasses or T-squares. If you stood it on the road, no carpenter would pay any attention to it. Now your talk is similarly vast but useless, people are unanimous in rejecting it.”

Zhuangzi replied, “Haven’t you ever seen a wildcat or a weasel? It crouches down to wait for something to pass, ready to pounce east or west, high or low, only to end by falling into a trap and dying in a net But then there is the yak. It is as big as a cloud hanging in the sky. It has an ability to be big, but hardly an ability to catch mice. Now you have a large tree but fret over its uselessness. Why not plant it in Nothing At All town or Vast Nothing wilds? Then you could roam about doing nothing by its side or sleep beneath it. Axes will never shorten its life and nothing w ill ever harm it. If you are of no use at all, who will make trouble for you?”


How do I know that enjoying life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death we are not like people who got lost in early childhood and do not know the way home? Lady Li was the child of a border guard in Ai. When first captured by the state of Jin, she wept so much her clothes were soaked. But after she entered the palace, shared the king’s bed, and dined on the finest meats, she regretted her tears. How do I know that the dead do not regret their previous longing for life? One who dreams of drinking wine may in the morning weep; one who dreams weeping may in the morning go out to hunt. During our dreams we do not know we are dreaming. We may even dream of interpreting a dream. Only on waking do we know it was a dream. Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream. And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen. How dense! You and Confucius are both dreaming, and I who say you are a dream am also a dream. Such is my tale. It will probably be called preposterous, but after ten thousand generations there may be a great sage who will be able to explain it, a trivial interval equivalent to the passage from morning to night.


Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a f1uttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.


Cook Ding was cutting up a cow for Duke Wenhui. With a touch of his hand a lunge of his shoulder a stamp of his toot a bend of his knee, zip, his knife slithered. never missing a beat,. in time to “the dance of the mulberry forest,” or the “Jingshou Suite”. Lord Wenhui exclaimed “How amazing that your skill has reached such heights!

Cook Ding put down his knife and replied What I love is the Way, which goes beyond skill When I first butchered cows, I saw nothing but cows. After three years, I never saw a eat as a whole At present, I deal with it through my spirit rather than looking at it with my eyes My perception stops and my spirit runs its course I rely on the natural patterning striking at the big openings leading into the main cavities By following what is inherently so I never cut a ligament or tendon, not to mention a bone A good cook changes his knife once a year, because he cuts An ordinary cook changes his knife every month, because he hacks. This knife of mine is nineteen years old. It has carved several thousand cows, yet its blade looks like it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces in the joints, and the blade has no thickness So when something with no thickness enters something with space it has plenty of room to move about This is why after nineteen years it seems fresh from the grindstone

However when I come to something complicated I inspect it closely to prepare myself I keep my eyes on what I am doing and proceed deliberately, moving my knife imperceptibly. Then with a stroke it all comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling. I stand there, my knife in my hand look all around, enjoying my success. Then I clean the knife and put it away

Lord Wenhui said, Excellent! By listening to Cook Ding I learned how to nurture life.”


Consider Cripple Shu. His chin is down by his navel His shoulders stick up above his head. The bones at the base of his neck point to the sky. The five pipes of his spine are on top: his two thighs form ribs. Yet by sewing and washing he is able to fill his mouth; by shaking the fortune-telling sticks he earns enough to feed ten. When the authorities draft soldiers, a cripple can walk among them confidently flapping his sleeves; when they are conscripting work gangs, cripples are excused because of their infirmity. When the authorities give relief grain to the ailing a cripple gets three measures along with bundles of firewood. Thus one whose form is crippled can nurture his body and live out the years Heaven grants him. Think that he could do if his virtue was crippled too!


Root of Heaven roamed on the south side of Mount Vast. When he came to the bank of Clear Stream he met Nameless Man and asked him. “Please tell me how to manage the world.”

“Go away you dunce.” Nameless Man said. “Such questions are no fun I was Just about to join the Creator of Things. If I get bored with that, I’ll climb on the bird Merges with the Sky and soar beyond the six directions. I’ll visit Nothing Whatever town and stay in Boundless country. Why do you bring up managing the world to disturb my thoughts? ”

Still Root of Heaven repeated his question and Nameless Man responded “Let your mind wander among the insipid, blend your energies with the featureless, spontaneously accord with things, and you will have no room for selfishness. Then the world will be in order.”


Duke Huan was reading a book in the hall. Wheelwright Pian, who had been chiseling a wheel in the courtyard below, set down his tools and climbed the stairs to ask Duke Huan, “may I ask what words are in the book Your Grace is reading?”

“The words of sages.” the Duke responded.

“Are these sages alive?”

“They are already dead”

That means you are reading the dregs of long gone men, doesn’t it?”

Duke Huan said How does a wheelwright get to have opinions on the books I read? If you can explain yourself I’ll let it pass otherwise, it’s death.”

W’heelwright Pian said ”In my case I see things in terms of my own work. When I chisel at a wheel, if I go slow the chisel slides and does not stay put; if I hurry, it jams and doesn’t move properly When it is neither too slow nor too fast I can feel it in my hand and respond to it from my heart. My mouth cannot describe it in words but there is something there 1 cannot teach it to my son and my son cannot learn it from me So I have gone on for seventy years, growing old chiseling wheels The men of old died in possession of what could not transmit. So it follows that what you are reading is their dregs.”


When Zhuangzi’s wife died and Hui Shi came to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi squatting with his knees out, drumming on a pan and singing ”You lived with her she raised your children, and you grew old together, Hui Shi said “Not weeping when she died would have been bad enough. Aren’t you going too far by drumming on a pan and singing?’

“No,” Zhuangzi said, “when she first died how could I have escaped feeling the loss? Then I looked back to the beginning before she had life Not only before she had life but before she had form. Not only before she had form, but before she had vital energy. In this confused amorphous realm, something changed and vital energy appeared,- when the vital energy was changed, form appeared; with changes in form, life began. Now there is another change bringing death. This is like the progression of the four seasons of spring and fall, winter and summer. Here she was lying down to sleep in a huge room and I followed her sobbing and wailing. When I realized my actions showed I hadn’t understood destiny, I stopped.”


When Zhuangzi was about to die, his disciples wanted to bury him in a well-appointed tomb. Zhuangzi said, ”I have the sky and the earth for inner and outer coffins the sun and the moon for jade disks the stars for pearls and the ten thousand things for farewell gifts. Isn’t the paraphernalia for my burial adequate without adding anything?”

”We are afraid the crows and kites will eat you master,” a disciple said.

“Above ground, I will be eaten by crows and kites; below ground by ants. You are robbing from the one to give to the other. Why play favorites”’

Translated by Patricia Ebrey


The first seven chapters of the text, often called the Inner Chapters, are generally attributed to Zhuangzi. The remaining text is often understood to contain fragments of material, some of which are sometimes attributed to the same author as the Inner Chapters, some of which are attributed to other authors.

Date of Composition:

Some scholars place this text as early as 350 BC., some as late as 250 BC. The crucial, though ultimately unanswered, question is which of the two primordial texts of philosophical Daoism (Taoism) came first- Laozi’s Tao Te Ching (Lao-tzu) or Nan Hua Zhen Jing by Zhuangzi. Most scholars agree however that Laozi predates the Zhuangzi, and that the author of the Inner Chapters was in fact familiar with Laozi’s writing, in some form or another.

Major Ideas:

    * Our experience of the world is relative to our perspective.
    * The world of our experience is constantly transforming.
    * Therefore we must be wary of our tendency to adopt fixed or dogmatic judgments, evaluations, and standards based on a narrow viewpoint, since this leads to conflict and frustration.
    * Optimal experience involves freeing ourselves from slavish commitment to convention. This enables us to see clearly (ming) and act spontaneously and unobtrusively (wuwei)
    * The ideal person is one who is perfectly well-adjusted in this way.
    * The “genuine person” precedes “genuine knowledge.”
    * Language functions to convey meaning, and the meaning of language is relative to context.
    * Philosophical disputation, though sometimes stimulating, is a somewhat futile enterprise because “right” and “wrong” cannot be determined through argument.
    * Death is a natural part of life, one of its infinite transformations.

The Zhuangzi is one of the two most famous primordial texts of what can be called “philosophical Daoism,” although its influence is also felt in other traditions of Chinese thought. Its exact relationship to the other basic text, the Tao Te Ching of Laozi, is unclear, though the two texts have a great deal in common. Some scholars have regarded the Zhuangzi as a commentary on Laozi, and in some passages this might in fact be the case. But in general Zhuangzi has its own philosophical agenda and is unique in many ways. For various reasons, including the Nan Hua Zhen Jing’s apparent reference to passages from the Tao Te Ching and the apparent literary sophistication of the former relative to the latter, it seems very likely that the Tao Te Ching in some form or another predates the Zhuangzi.

In terms of literary sophistication, the Zhuangzi is in a class by itself. In some ways it reinvents the Chinese literary language. It makes reference to dozens of stories, myths, and legends common at the time of its authorship, many of which have been lost to us. But the text reworks these stories, eliciting new meanings and significance from them. These references are sometimes rather obscure, which makes reading the text extremely difficult.

The text has exerted an extremely powerful influence on subsequent forms of Chinese philosophical thought. This is particularly true of Chan Buddhism and later Daoist thought.


The only information regarding the ostensible author of the text is legendary in nature, and must be regarded as somewhat unreliable. However, according to the historian Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien), who lived several hundred years after the fact, Zhuangzi lived from approximately 370-301 BC. He is said to have come from the district of Meng, located in what is known today as Honan, China. He served there as a minor official, eventually resigning his position to return to private life. According to this account, he refused an offer to become Prime Minister by King Wei of Chu. (339-329 BC.).

Besides this account, there are many stories in the text which are of an ostensibly autobiographical nature. But the historicity of these stories must be regarded under the perspective that the work is primarily literary and philosophical and not historical in intent. On top of it much of the text is apparently the work of later authors who might easily have taken literary liberties with the facts.

The Text

The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua was most often associated with, though subordinated to, the Tao Te Ching for several hundred years, until the end of the Han Dynasty (ca. 200 AD.). At that point, the breakdown of political and cultural unity may have resulted in an increased interest in The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua’s rejection of conventional values, his justification of withdrawal from involvement in and fulfillment of civic responsibility, and his emphasis on seeking alternative, more natural attitudes and lifestyles which facilitate “finding the fit” with the world as a whole.

The text reached its present form ca. 300 AD. It was likely the philosopher Guo Xiang who integrated materials from other sources, divided the book up into its present configuration of chapters, and assigned titles to the chapters. In fact, Guo Xiang’s influence is so strong that some scholars sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the thought of Zhuangzi and the thought of the latter.

Parts of the text spoof and satirize the more reputable and established philosophical traditions of its time, namely, the Confucians and the Mohists. Zhuangzi’s basic attitude toward such philosophical disputation is that it is rather pointless and hairsplitting at best. It solves no problems conclusively, and merely leads to conflict and disagreement.

A passage from Chapter 2 indicates this attitude: “Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I have beaten you instead of your beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? Is one of us right and the other wrong? Are both of us right or are both of us wrong? If you and I don’t know the answer, then other people are bound to be even more in the dark. Whom shall we get to decide what is right? Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide? But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly?…Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can know the answer. Shall we wait for still another person?” (Basic Writings, p.43)

As we shall see, Zhuangzi’s own approach can be described as perspectival – that is, the truth value of any claim is related to context or perspective, and must always be carefully qualified in order to have any validity at all. Zhuangzi suggests that words are like a fish trap-once the meaning is caught, one should forget the words, just as the trap is only useful for catching the fish, but can be put aside once the fish has been caught. Accordingly, the style of the text is very poetic, allegorical, evocative, and mythical. The text as it exists today, as edited by Guo Xiang, consists of 33 chapters. The first seven chapters, called the inner chapters, are relatively consistent in style and attitude. Thus they are often considered by scholars to be the work of the author Zhuang Zhou himself. The next fifteen chapters, described as the outer chapters, and the last eleven chapters, described as the miscellaneous chapters, are often considered to be the work of later writers, including works representative of what is known as the Yangist tradition. These materials are perhaps interspersed with fragments of Zhuangzi’s own writings. For the most part they seem to be consistent with the spirit of the inner chapters, yet are often not as artfully written, and at times even seem to have significantly different emphases and concerns.

The text seems pretty clearly to have been composed in layers, though scholars disagree on the exact number of layers involved. In any case the composition of the text seems to span at least three different phases or stages in the evolution of Daoist thought.

Furthermore, the text is extremely aphoristic, consisting of short stories, sound bites, and anecdotes. This style lends itself, as is also the case, for example, with Nietzsche in the West, to quotation out of context and the inevitable misunderstandings which subsequently result from such textual abuse. Thus we must be wary when attributing any single outlook to the text as a whole. Still, certain themes emerge, and we will discuss some of these below.

Philosophical Outlook

The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua is often described as advocating relativism, and there are certainly relativistic elements to be found. But unlike more thoroughgoing forms of relativism, the text does privilege certain attitudes and behaviors, and thus cannot accurately be dismissed as purely relativistic. At least two different modes of experience are privileged in the text. In terms of mental state, in several places the text advocates a cognitive condition described as ming, or “clarity.” Clarity in this case seems to involve the ability to discern subtle distinctions without necessarily evaluating experience in terms of a preferred alternative. Therefore, the text should not be thought of as advocating the obliteration of distinctions in an overwhelming experience of mystical oneness, which is how some commentators and scholars read the text.

In terms of behavior, the text privileges what is called “wu wei,” or “effortless action.” This kind of behavior seems to involve minimizing conflict with what is inevitable or unavoidable in our experience, and reducing the friction and drag caused by obstinate commitment to a single preferred outcome.

Thus we might draw the conclusion that the ideal person, whom the text variously describes as “genuine” (zhenren), “fully realized” (zhiren), or “spiritual” (shenren), is one who is perfectly well-adjusted. That is to say, such a person is balanced and at ease in all kinds of situations, and is not thrown by novelty or unexpected circumstances. An image used by Zhuangzi to illustrate this kind of adjustment is what he calls the “hinge of Dao” (daoshu). In chapter 2, we find the following claim: “A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted in the socket, it can respond endlessly.” (Basic Writings, p.35)

Although the presence of privileged modes of experience in the text prevents us from accurately describing it as thoroughly relativistic, still it does seem to be the case that, for Zhuangzi, all truth and valuation are necessarily contextually situated. This means, for example, that what is good for one individual might not be good for another, and the same goes for beauty, truth, usefulness, and so on. And just as this is the case for different individuals, it is also the case for a single individual at different times.

Thus, rather than obstinately clashing with the flux of the world by insisting on maintaining dogmatic and constant standards, one would be better off adjusting one’s standards and attitudes in reponse to the needs of the current situation. One implication of this attitude of “least resistance” (wei wu wei) is that one’s resources and overall well-being are best preserved through reducing the friction we experience with the world.

The best example from the text to illustrate Zhuangzi’s conception of this optimally “frictionless” mode of experience is one found in chapter 3 of the text, the story of Cook, quoted above:

“Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee-zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music. …

Cook Ting laid down his knife and [said], ‘What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond all skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now-now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room-more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.” (Basic Writings, p.46-47)

The knife keeps its edge for an extraordinarily long time because it never confronts the obstacle of bone. It is not an accident that Lord Wen-hui finds in this, not just a lesson on butchering, but a lesson on life. This concern with preserving one’s well-being through conservation of one’s natural resources can also be found in the Yangist tradition (and is still one of the basic axioms of Chinese medicine), and suggests a significant Yangist influence on the text. In turn, this is also a factor which contributes to the influence exerted by the Nan Hua Zhen Jing on the subsequent development of alchemical longevity movements within the Daoist tradition.

Philosophy of Language

Regarding the use of language, we find the following passage in chapter 2 of the text (Watson, Basic Writings, p.34): “Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there?”

According to one reading of this passage, words carry significance, though they don’t mean anything in and of themselves, and their meaning is not constant. The meaning of any word is dependent on and in turn contributes to the general context of the sentence, paragraph, discourse, etc. In other words, words don’t mean anything pancontextually, but words do mean what we mean when we use words in any given situation. As previously indicated, Zhuangzi compares language to a fish net, which is useful only until a fish is caught, and then becomes obsolete and must be forgotten until a new fish, or in this case a new meaning, is sought. Burton Watson’s translation of the final sentence of this passage is perfectly apt: “Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?” (Basic Writings p.140).

More specifically, Zhuangzi distinguishes between three kinds of language: Watson translates them as “imputed words,” “repeated words,” and “goblet words.” The first are words attributed to some great historical or legendary figure, which increases their impact. The second are words which gain credibility simply by being familiar, since we often mistake the merely familiar for the obviously self-evident. The third are words whose meaning changes, which Zhuangzi describes as “words that are no-words” (Complete Writings, p. 303-304.) This kind of language constantly refreshes itself, and therefore more accurately conveys meaning. It fills and empties, and thus more closely mirrors the distinctions necessary for understanding.

Death as one more natural transformation

Zhuangzi conceives of the world as constantly changing. The adaptive qualities of the perfectly well-adjusted person enables him or her to remain balanced in the midst of this maelstrom of change and transformation. In Chapter 18, a story is told regarding the death of Zhuangzi’s wife:

“Chuang Tzu’s wife died. When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. ‘You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,’ said Hui Tzu. ‘It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing-this is going too far, isn’t it?’

Chuang Tzu said, ‘You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.

‘Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.'” (Basic Writings, p.113)

Many conclusions can be reached on the basis of this story, but it seems that death is regarded as a natural part of the ebb and flow of transformations which constitute the movement of Dao. To grieve over death, or to fear one’s own death, for that matter, is to arbitrarily evaluate what is inevitable. Of course, this reading is somewhat ironic given the fact that much of the subsequent Daoist tradition comes to seek longevity and immortality, and bases some of their basic models on The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua.

In some sense, we are reminded of Plato, who argues that people inappropriately fear death without knowing what it is. Similarly in chapter 2 of The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua, Zhang Wuzi says: “How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back?

“‘Lady Li was the daughter of the border guard of Ai. When she was first taken captive and brought to the state of Chin, she wept until her tears drenched the collar of her robe. But later, when she went to live in the palace of the ruler, shared his couch with him, and ate the delicious meats of his table, she wondered why she had ever wept. How do I know that the dead do not wonder why they ever longed for life?'” (Basic Writings, p.42-3).

Zhuangzi’s attitude is very different than Plato’s, of course. Zhuangzi is suggesting that it is useless, arbitrary, and dysfunctional to set ourselves against what is natural. We can, he seems to say, choose to adopt different perspectives on experience. Why not choose ones which enable us to see death not as something to be feared and lamented, but as just one more phase in a much larger transformational movement. What is now Zhuangzi’s wife was something else before she was Zhuangzi’s wife, and what was Zhuangzi’s wife will be something else after her death as well.

This is not necessarily to suggest an afterlife, or any form of personal immortality. But death in general can be said to lead to new life just as life in general ends in death. An example of this is the fact that dead matter fertilizes the ground and provides the raw material for other living beings to grow and reproduce. Life goes on, though we may not, and it is possible, the text seems to suggest, to adopt the perspective of life itself which transforms, for example, rather than to adopt the more narrow and limited perspective of a single moment in the transformation of life.

Conclusion – The Fully Realized Person

One of the most famous stories to be found in the Zhuangzi is the one found at the end of chapter 2 – the above quoted butterfly dream:

“Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.” (Basic Writings, p.45).

It is signficant that the important image in this story is the butterfly. This image sums up much of Zhuangzi’s thought. The butterfly is a symbol of transformation; it follows the breeze yet arrives at the flower; Its actions are spontaneous and free. Thus it doesn’t wear itself out fighting the forces of nature.

Zhuangzi uses several different phrases to refer to a person who embodies the Dao in this kind of natural and effortless fashion. These terms include “genuine person” (zhenren), “etherial” or “spiritual” person (shenren), and “fully realized person” (zhirren). Perhaps such a person resembles a butterfly in certain ways. He or she has become balanced and centered and is thus able to experience the pitch and roll of oppositions (taiji, t’ai chi) without being thrown off-balance by them. The sage can thus fit in the world, at the center, in the socket of the hinge, at the fulcrum of all dichotomies. He or she blends in with the surroundings, and becomes effectively frictionless, transparent and unobtrusive.

Written by huehueteotl

October 5, 2007 at 7:41 pm

Rebecca West – Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

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Rebecca West‘s vast, complex book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is to my mind less so a timeless guide to Yugoslavia – but more of a portrait of the author’s soul and of European thinking on the brink of war. Nowadays, the author of guide-books should have no artistic personality. He or she is ideally an anonymous conduit of reliable information about bus times, places to stay and museum opening hours. At the other end of the spectrum rests the constructivism, like in his book Fiction, photographer Michael Ackerman claims that “places do not exist. A place is just my idea of it.” west_lamm_gr.jpg

Literary travel writing thrives between the extremes represented by the travel guide and Ackerman’s solipsism . The best travel writers may be of only limited reliability when it comes to bus times but they may express timeless truths about the buses of a given country – or at least about their relationship with those buses.

When Rebecca West visited Norman Douglas in Florence in 1921 he joked that although Lawrence had been in town only a few hours he was probably already hammering out an article, “vehemently and exhaustively describing the temperament of the people”. To West this seemed “obviously a silly thing to do”, but Douglas was right: they turned up at Lawrence’s hotel to find him doing just that. At the time West thought that Lawrence did not know enough about Florence “to make his views of real value”. It was only after his death that she appreciated that he “was writing about the state of his own soul at that moment” and could only do so in symbolic terms. For this purpose “the city of Florence was as good a symbol as any other”.

West wrote this in 1931. She had not yet made the first of the trips to Yugoslavia that would form the basis of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon but the impact of this realisation on her own magnum opus is obvious. Indeed, relative to the size of the finished book, her experience of Yugoslavia was pretty skimpy. As Edith Durham, a noted authority on the Balkans, put it somewhat bitchily at the time, “The novelist Miss West has written an immense book on the strength of one pleasure trip to Yugoslavia, but with no previous knowledge of land or people.” For the record, Miss West had made three trips to Yugoslavia: the first, at the invitation of the British Council, to give lectures in the spring of 1936; a second with her husband, Henry Andrews, in the spring of 1937; the third in early summer of the following year.

Initially she had hoped quickly to write “a snap book”; four months after the second trip this venture had grown into a “wretched, complicated book that won’t interest anybody”.

In the course of researching its “long and complicated history” West learned and clarified her ideas about Yugoslavia – and about much else besides. Hence, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon takes up two subjects: the first is West’s ideas about Yugoslavia, and the second is her opinions about everything else. By the time it was published – in two volumes totalling half a million words – West was somewhat at a loss to discover why she had been moved “in 1936 to devote five years of my life, at great financial sacrifice and to the utter exhaustion of my mind and body, to take an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view”. As the “mass of [her] material” swelled and changed, so this “inventory” became an immense and immensely complicated picture not simply of her own soul but that of Europe on the brink of the second world war. The result, which she feared “hardly anyone will read by reason of its length”, is now considered to be one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.

Like the book itself its reputation is rather odd. West is considered a major British writer. If she is not regarded as a writer quite of the first rank that is largely because so much of the work on which her reputation should rest is rather belonging to journalism than to forms in which greatness is expected to manifest itself, namely the novel. As a novelist West is clearly less important than James Joyce, Lawrence or EM Forster. Her best work – reportage, journalism and travel – is traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is manifestly a work of literature, but since literature in English (at least as far as prose is concerned) is synonymous with the novel – with an agreed upon form of writing rather than a certain quality of writing – it is removed from the company in which it belongs.

Even some commentators who claim the book as a masterpiece have little to say about why it is one. Victoria Glendinning, in her biography of West, has no doubt that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is “the central book of her life … the work in which Rebecca West formulated her views on religion, ethics, art, myth and gender”. Beyond that, she has almost nothing to say about it. And I agree with her. That is what the book conveys most certainly. On anything else i find its reliability rather doubtful, particularly on its claimed subject “Yugoslavia” or historical processes. Rebecca West is clearly no historian, not even a scientist. But she is a splendid and honest writer.

The book had been reissued a few years earlier in response to the outbreak of a conflict West had, in some ways, foreseen. In the prologue, West remembers herself “peering” at old film footage of the king of Yugoslavia, “like an old woman reading the tea-leaves in her cup”. West’s prophetic gift is hinted at as early as page 10, when she writes that “it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!'”

In Kosovo, West’s chauffeur, Dragutin, grabs a Croat boy by the ear and says with a mixture of irony and threat, “We’ll kill you all some day.” It is weirdly disorienting to read it now, when the blaze of contemporary events was fierce enough to make one wonder about West’s emphasis on the influence of Austria, Venice or Turkey on Balcan history. I got this book as a gift from a friend born from this corner of Europe, who earlier gifted me with Ivo Andrić’ “Die Brücke über die Drina”, or Milorad Pavić’ “Landschaft in Tee gemalt”. Hence while I was expecting to learn more about the “Balcan”, I could not help to notice, that even in my own distant opinion about Serbia and Montenegro there have been many times when the recent history seemed to be nothing short of a distorted and discombobulated sequel to the weird and prophetic pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

As a book about Yugoslavia, then, it is, to my mind not of “extraordinary usefulness”. The book’s practical worth is nill, I would say. But as West herself observed, “sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time”.

If you are not in – or interested in – the Balkan peninsula the number of pages devoted to the history of the region can seem off-putting. Except this is history as it might have been written by Gabriel García Márquez – a thrilling narrative rather than science. Take the scene from Sarajevo in 1914 when, shortly before his assassination, Archduke Franz Ferdinand finds the reception hall he is standing in crammed with the half-million beasts he has killed in his career as a hunter:

One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with the furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them: stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, capercaillie, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon layer of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own.

West’s intention was “to show the past side by side with the present it created”. This is not to be taken philosophically, but subjectively – and it fits nicely into a Proust-ian understanding of time. As such West can reveal even how an apparently ahistorical sensation – the scent of a plucked flower, say – is saturated with the smell of the past. Geography and history, to make the same point rather more sweepingly, cannot always be distinguished from one another – hence the way that certain places “imprint the same stamp on whatever inhabitants history brings them, even if conquest spills out one population and pours in another wholly different in race and philosophy”.

As here, the book is full of the most daring time-shifts and the most outrageous deductions, hardly reliable as objective fact, but always as subjective truth told with straightforwardness (except perhaps, where Gerda is concerned). Naturally, West does never stop. The sight of a man and woman prompts her to return to one of the major themes of the book, the vexed relations of men and women.

Any area of unrestricted masculinism, where the women are made to do all the work and are refused the right to use their wills, is in fact disgusting, not so much because of the effect on the women, who are always taught something by the work they do, but because of the nullification of the men.

The book’s interminable self-fuelling discussions are central to West’s structural and stylistic method. Any conclusions she draws are tied to the her personal view of a process (despite “process” figuring as the key word in the book). Something catches West’s attention; the incident – a Mozart symphony coming on the radio in a restaurant, say – and is conveyed with vivid immediacy. As West articulates and processes in her personal experience, she takes us on a discursive journey into the furthest reaches of speculative thought before returning us to the spot or occasion from which we started. Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, Princip, is in this way the active representative of the author’s own purpose: “He offered himself wholly to each event in order that he might learn in full what revelation it had to make about the nature of the universe.”

Not surprisingly, even enthusiastic readers of “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” are likely to feel that its impressive bulk is due solely to accumulation, to the mass of material contained in it. But Black Lamb and Grey Falcon earns its size as a work of art too. West seems to have needed “a form that’s large enough to swim in”. The scale of its conception is imprinted internally in its syntax and composition. Ostensibly convenient and alluring, the edited selection offered in The Essential Rebecca West feels nonetheless as enough to me. Particularly, as the reducing such a book to its essentials, was done by the author herself.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a book about Yugoslavia; it is predicated on “a coincidence between the natural forms and colours of the western and southern parts of Yugoslavia and the innate forms and colours of [West’s] imagination”.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is digressive and meandering like Balcan history. Making different demands on the reader’s expectations of order, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has the unity and fluidity of a sustained improvisation in prose.

West can be witty: “The visit had been extraordinarily pleasant, though it had been nothing at all, and least of all a visit.”

She can be playful: “Then why did we not bring the book?” asked my husband. “Well, it weighs just over a stone,” I said. “I weighed it once on the bathroom scales.” “Why did you do that?” asked my husband. “Because it occurred to me one day that I knew the weight of nothing except myself and joints of meat,” I said, “and I just picked that up to give me an idea of something else.”

She can be lyrical: “As we drew nearer the shore the water under the keel was pale emerald where the diving sunlight had found sand”;

and fantastical at the same time:

“Beyond the bridge the river widened out into a curd of yellow water-lilies, edged with a streak of mirror at each bank, in which willow trees, standing above their exact reflections, amazed us by their shrill green and cat-o’-thousand tails forms; they were like static fireworks.”

As happens when she dismisses a woman she meets in a hotel in Bosnia, West can be abusive and intemperate: “she was cruelty; she was filth”.

In the epilogue, West comments on the way that, in her teens, Ibsen “corrected the chief flaw in English literature, which is a failure to recognise the dynamism of ideas”. With characteristic vehemence she later decided that “Ibsen cried out for ideas for the same reason that men call out for water, because he had not got any.”

To say that West has them by the gallon is an understatement. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is, along with everything else, a great flood of ideas, at times completely undisturbed by factual limitations. Sensation, observation, reflection and responsiveness to “the visibility of life”, are all the time flowing into each other.

The book’s biggest idea is also its simplest – “The problem is that:

only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”

Despite its extreme subjectivity, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is vast, ambitious and brilliant. In Montenegro, West encounters a woman who is trying to understand the many hard things that have befallen her. The meeting persuades West that if “during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe”.

It is nothing but a dream. But, “It is the soul’s duty to be loyal to its own desires. It must abandon itself to its master passion.”

Written by huehueteotl

October 5, 2007 at 6:39 pm

Paul Auster – Travels in the Scriptorium

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Auster’s book, I read last, explores metaphysical mazes, stories within stories and alienated geographies and personalities. It is a taut and cyclical conundrum that teases and taunts readers. It does not, as it might appear, transport you to a time and place so much as distort time and place. Chance and coincidence again in full right.

auster.jpgTravels in the Scriptorium is one of his strangest, althougth not really labyrinthine works, I have come across.

At times one is almost compelled to make notes to try to piece together the puzzle, to plot an exit or just orient oneself.

As for further details, well, one just has to trust Auster: “Our only task is to study the pictures as attentively as we can and refrain from drawing any premature conclusion,” he writes on the first page.

Auster is here wickedly self-referential, constantly playing little games that extend from one book to another. His characters, like his motifs, are recycled and reworked, but this is no criticism. Auster said recently that this book featured characters from earlier books as “I keep asking myself what happens to them after the novel ends”. Only an obsessive could pick up all the reference points. The title of the book is the second novel of a fictional character from a fictional movie in Auster’s The Book of Illusions but is also the title of an Auster movie due for release this year, and it was the name of a movie in the same book. And it is at the same time a travel into the scriptorium of Auster’s own writings.

Blank’s nurse, Anna Blum, who shares a mysteriously close relationship with the confused man, appeared first in the book In the Country of Last Things; her dead husband, David Zimmer, popped up in The Book of Illusions; and so on.

Here, I did some more work for you:

* Page 28: Mr. Blank is asked to wear white clothes at the request of Peter Stillman, Jr. (City of Glass).
* Page 79: Mr. Blank receives a phone call from his doctor, Samuel Farr (The Country of Last Things).
* Page 88: Dr. Farr tells Mr. Blank that the manuscript he has been reading was written by John Trause (Oracle Night).

It’s rich pickings for those working on Auster doctorates, I suppose, but just another mosquito buzz for the ordinary reader, the sort of annoying half-memory that disorients Blank.

So what are we to make of Paul Auster? His 13th novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, sounds suspiciously like he were attempting to distill the essence of his work. Or is he trying to tell something about the number 13 (don’t dismiss it; in The Music of Chance Auster outlined the personalities of several numbers, calling 10 “simpleminded” and 11 “an outdoorsman”)?

Auster says Scriptorium is kind of a fable, a work that “resonates with what’s happening in America today”. Are Americans obnubilated and imprisoned in a featureless present, above them a camera silently clicking and “producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with each revolution of the earth”? Or are they pictured as the main character, knowing or suspecting about his past, that it consistis of nothing but a terrible wrong he has done to a group of people, some of whom visit him and one of whom cares? Is America the “Confederation” waging war against the “Alien Territories” through a devilish plot for no other reason than to secure its own shaky stability? Is America today nothing but a fiction in some cruel author’s head, ready to call “Sleep well, Mr. Blank. Lights out.” any time?

Whatever it is, the story begins in a mysterious room detached from time or place. The Protagonist, a Mr. Blank, is medicated and confused. Parts of the puzzle appear to fall into place as he reads an account of a man writing an account of another imprisoned man forced to write an account of political intrigue. Mr Blank is then asked to imagine the conclusion of the story.

It appears Mr Blank is a prisoner but, much like the characters in a Beckett play, he never manages to establish if this is true or not.An old man emerges from a mental fog with no memory of who or where he is. The protagonist, helpfully, is dubbed Mr Blank and Above him, in the

While the an starts to read, he is interrupted by a stream of visitors — a nurse, an ex-cop, a doctor — who begin asking him about his “operatives.” As operatives continue to barge in on Mr. Blank, telling stories about those who have just left, the relationships pile on top of one another until every fact becomes, in fact, another person’s story.

Without a-ha recognition at a name like “Fanshawe,” entering and exiting characters blur, and two rather tepid forms of entertainment remain. First there are Mr. Blank’s daily proceedings, which are quite juvenile; at one point he farts and says “Hopalong Casidy rides again!” Second there is the story-within-a-story that Mr. Blank finds on his desk, a half-baked mystical Western about “the Confederation” and “the Alien Territories.”

At times there is a distracting over-description (“He savors the bulk and softness of Sophie’s somewhat pendulous but noble mammaries”) and questionable slang (“two shakes of a cat”). Careful reading is necessary to acquit some phrases; a tautology like “the word all is an absolute term” becomes acceptable only if one remembers its pair, “the word old is a flexible term,” 23 pages back. Auster is probably having fun, and it can come off as a little rude, for my taste.

As Mr. Blank’s day drags on, things do not go well. His visitors drug him, the manuscript that he’s reading ends abruptly, and someone plays a mean trick on him by moving things around in his room. But then he has a breakthrough: under the guidance of Dr. Farr, he is able to finish the tale of the Confederation and the Alien Territories. Taken as such, the entire setup — the scriptorium — might as well be an in-patient facility for writer’s block.

Yet, Travels in the Scriptorium poses deep and endlessly debatable questions, beyond any resemblance with modern America. Who is really in charge of the creative process: the artist or the art? Is writing a prison (Mr. Blank seems trapped in his room) or is it a paradise (he’s fed, clothed, and sexually serviced by one of his nurses)? Is there such a thing as truth, or are there only the fabrications of reckless writers?

Like a rap-album, where every song is a rip-off of a song that had come before, Paul Auster has at least the advantage of being able to rip off his own work in order to produce new meaning through intertextuality, as semantics call it.

Written by huehueteotl

October 5, 2007 at 5:12 pm

Paul Auster – The Brooklyn Follies

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brooklyn-follies.jpg Nathan and Tom are an uncle and nephew double-act – one in remission from lung cancer, divorced, and estranged from his only daughter, the other hiding away from his once-promising academic career. Matters change when Lucy, a little girl who refuses to speak, comes into their lives… So far the book cover.

“Every destination is arbitrary, every decision is governed by chance. You float, you weave, you get there as fast as you can, but you don’t really have a say in the matter”, a line uttered by one of the figures, to my mind would make a better synopsis of the moving mosaic of stories, centered around Brooklyn-borne Nathan Glass. Auster’s perspective follows as such not only Kafka or Hawthorne, but Balzac, who declared: “le hasard est le plus grand romancier du monde” (Avant-propos de La Comédie Humaine). I guess, it is hence not by chance, that the narrator himself is writing a book within the book titled “Human follies”. Obviously, as more and more people keep finding out, chance is not only a great author of fiction, but does a good deal of the work in real life as well. If literature strives to explain human existance, then reference to chance is just honest.

When I read all those comments by official critiques, amazonauts and those who call themselves Auster-aficionados about what Auster is supposed to write typically and what he is not typical about, I am lost. Whatever he is supposed or not suppose to write, for me this story is poetry about chance as a relevant part of reality, and about meaning of human existence. It is not only entertaining, but asks the big questions about life and keeps up hope that there might be a meaningfull dimension to it. On top of it: despite them abandoning life with cynism, abandoning an academic career in depression, abandoning a child in despair, abandoning a stale job in love, abandoning a wrecked marriage in fury, abandoning bougeois honesty in ennui – I love all characters in this book. Folly is their abandon, but folly too were it, would they not muster the courage to leave behind what turns out to be past anyway. And here I notice a difference to previous Auster novels: given that chance does fit in, none of the characters – who all leave something behind them – is not gaining in the end. That makes reading not only entertaining but heartwarming too.

Written by huehueteotl

October 5, 2007 at 2:17 pm

Orhan Pamuk: Rot ist mein Name.

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Fischer Tb., 2003, 556 Seiten, €9,90, ISBN-3596156602,

The novel My Name is Red, by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, to my mind focuses on two ways of seeing as its frame of reference. Beyond its qualities as a detective or love story, unfolding during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III in nine snowy winter days of 1591 – which I personally find rather moderate – it highlights issues of representation in a comparative context. Pamuk’s characters confront each other on ways of seeing in sixteenth-century Istanbul, by then the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The visual narratives of Ottoman miniature painting are elaborated in comparison with the contemporary Renaissance art, unfolding the differences in the depiction of faces in particular.

 My Name is Red, instead of being very captivating for the identity of a murderer, it is ways more fascinating for the reason of murder, which is none other than the multidimensional confrontation between icon and image, tradition and innovation, idealism and realism in fine arts. In this sense, the story is also a contemporary tale, dealing with the concepts of representation and resemblance, iconoclasm and fundamentalism in the context of ‘East and West’.

Venice serves the pivot of the compass defining the scope of this presentation, joining Netherlandish painting and Ottoman miniature tradition at a common juncture. Both ways of seeing will be traced through the sixteenth century, from Hieronymus Bosch to Pieter Bruegel on the one hand and from Bihzad (the master of Persian miniature) to Nakkas Osman (the chief miniaturist of the Ottoman Palace during the second half of the second century) on the other.

Style in visual narration is treated in this novel as a reflection of seeing and imaging everything in its uniqueness and is contrasted with the tradition of Islamic book illumination where all objects appear to be cast into rigidly ruled iconografic molds, rendering the object possibly as in Allah’s own view (e.g. femaile beauty rendered invariably with chinese facial traits). Western concerns with individuality and the uniqueness of the point of view as revealed in one-point-perspective, suggests it is an indispensable aspect of style. In that sense, My Name is Red highlights portraiture in the visual arts as a reflection of character in visual narration; reflecting both the subject and the artist whose individuality is represented in the style of painting. For this, Pamuk’s novel, constructed as a symphony of many different voices, is well-suited in its form.

Written by huehueteotl

August 27, 2007 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Literature, Movies/Books, Music

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