Tag Archives: Dialogue

The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

Joris Hoefnagel's painting: "Animalia" -- unknown whether the artist employed a fine camelhair brush in his creation

On to a discussion of the sort of completely esoteric (by which I mean, ‘interesting but utterly useless from a practical sense’) things a person might encounter during graduate school.  Add to this esotericity a small dose of humor and we have a subject begging to be NQR‘ed.

This is the somewhat famous taxonomy of “The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”

As background, this list is reputed to be genuine, though likely is a fiction created or latched onto by Jose Luis Borges to show that all organization of the world into categories — despite the very convincing and cannonized taxonomies of Artistotilian and Linnaean thought to which we in the West have become accumstomed — is necessarily arbitrary.  In simpler terms, even though we think of classifications like ‘mammals’ and ‘reptiles’ to be fundamental to a ‘correct view’ of the world, those classifications are no more real than what Borges presents in this following list of ‘ancient Chinese’ groupings.

That’s prolly ‘enuff words for today.  Enuff high-falutin’ talk.  I’ll merely leave you with the original Borgian list, hoping that ideas will roll around in the back of your brain and that, the next time you look at something and slap a label on it, you think twice: “Does it belong to the emperor or has it just broken the flower vase?”

All animals fall into one of 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The 24-Hour Book

Amid a panoply of other academic tasks this week, I’m planning to write a response essay (300 words or less!) as part of the 24-Hour Book Project.

Brian Dillon hard at work on his 24-hour book

In short, a man named Brian Dillon has been closeted away at the Brooklyn offices of Cabinet magazine for the last 24-hours, producing a novelette he has titled “I Am Sitting in a Room.”  He started at 10AM yesterday and finished just a few minutes ago.  The manuscript zipped off to the printers and also to a few enterprising volunteer grad students from various disciplines here at Princeton.  We have 24 hours of our own to read, digest and respond — artistically, critically, banaly — to the work.

I’m interested to see if Dillon’s writing exhibits coherence in this short time-frame.  I’m interested to see what reaction it provokes in me, tossed and turned and sullied by the articles on Jewish mysticism, Islamic exegesis, and Christian gnosis I’m currently reading for my coursework.

Whether I produce something worthy of this cultural pearl or something more fit to toss to swine, it is an interesting and fun experiment in the narrowing of time and history, the mechanisms at our disposal for communication, and the speed of production and consumption in our present-day half-mad world.

It’s a project filled to the brim with Not Quite Right.

UPDATE #1 (1433hours, Sunday 11DEC2011):  After finishing three articles on the Merkavah and the approach to God in Jewish mysticism, I tore through a first reading of “I Am Sitting in a Room.”  Enjoyed it.  Found it more relevant to academia and less a ‘fiction’ than expected.  Will now let it take the air for a few hours while attending a Sunday evening lecture and dinner.

UPDATE #2:  (2302hours, Sunday 11DEC2011):  Returned from excellent dinner and lecture.  Reviewed materials for courses tomorrow.  Starting 60-minute essay on 24-hour book.

UPDATE #3:  (0043hours, Monday 12DEC2011):  Finished essay, submitted to IHUM, the Princeton program coordinating the book ‘release’ event.

UPDATE #4:  (1425hours, Monday 12DEC2011):  Editors of 24-hour book project notify me of my essay’s inclusion in the commentary volume that will be associated with the project.  Invited to speak as panelist at book event circa 1630hours but unfortunately — due to car maintenance issues — decline.

The Hand of Sheikh Sabah

This is a truly fearless tattoo.

During my unit’s train-up to deploy to Iraq, one of the more interesting and culturally relevant events we underwent involved meeting with a mock group of Iraqi townsfolk to conduct negotiations.  This drill was supposed to be pressurized, a first taste of the difficulty in communicating through interpreters, with security elements posted around us, and discussions that incorporated senstivity to regional issues.  For me, this was an excellent foreshadowing of the real work I would do later in the year, work which involved almost daily meetings with the town council in Safwan. The drill employed real Iraqis and other Arabic-speaking persons (along with a few dozen local ‘extras’ from South Louisiana pretending to speak Arabic through their heavily Cajun drawl) to add realism.

One thing that I noticed during this drill, a thing that stuck with me and has popped back into my consciousness now, especially given the current elections in Egypt, was a crude tattoo on the very visible backside of the hand of the head “actor” in this group.  This guy was the lead Iraqi negotiator, the ‘Sheikh’ of the mock village.  He played hardball with us.  He came prepared with a list of demands and wouldn’t budge from his positions.  He stressed our little team of negotiators as far as he could, refusing all accomodation, all reconciliation, and he did his best to escalate the scenario that had been concocted into something dangerous, a riot or a protest.

This photo was taken just after the finish of the exercise, when the actor walked away from the scenario to take a phone call.  He slipped his red-checkered keffiyah from his head to let the sweat from the humid Louisiana air dry.  He paced back and forth along a razor-wire fence.  I was able to surreptitiously raise my camera, zoom in from afar, and take this photo of the tattoo I had seen during our practice negotiations.

The tattoo makes me wonder about the man’s history.  So, too, does it make me wonder — this is the NQR here — how many of us, in our comfortable American bourgeoisie lives, would be willing to visibly and permanently express this sort of hope (or protest) if we lived under a similarly suppresive and brutal regime?

Unexpected Tolerance

Eight-pointed Islamic star.

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, megalomaniac ruler of Morocco in the 17th century who successfully forged a country, defended it from the Ottoman incursion through Algeria and kept a picked force of African slaves warriors called the “Black Guard” in addition to thousands of European/Christian slaves who worked on his capital city of Meknes, was a surprisingly tolerant man.

The tilework on the walls of Moulay Ismail’s own mausoleum proves lasting testimony.  First of all, all the tiles are arranged in a pre-Islamic Berber style, where the sun sits at the center casting rays out onto an abundant earth.  And, even better, inside Moulay Ismail’s sun are three alternating symbols:  the eight-pointed star of Islam, the Cross, and the Star of David.

The Star of David.

Although to a modern audience the Star of David might seem most incongruous, most Not Quite Right, the Jewish community played a vital role in Moulay Ismail’s empire, providing trade links with the world.  The Jewish community lived in well-protected enclaves, here called Mellah, within the same walls as the Muslim population.  Indeed, a big portion of both the Muslim and the Jewish population arrived together from Spain, primarily the cities of Cordoba and Toledo, as the Spanish Reconquista drove the Moors south across the Straits of Gibralter.

The Cross.

It was in the face of Christian persecution that both the Jewish and the Muslim populations in Meknes, Fes and other Moroccan cities blossomed.  And it is, therefore, all the more strange to find the cross given equal status in the architecture of the great leader’s tomb.  His empire derived strength from all three traditions and realized the essential idea that all three peoples worshipped the same God.  While the tiles themselves now seem Not Quite Right, the idea they preserve is right on target.

Indiana Jones Feedback Loop – Petra, Jordan

Shop outside Petra, Jordan

Culturally-speaking, this one seems like the equivalent of two mirrors facing each other.  Mindnumbingly unending repetition, an image that keeps looping back on itself:  Steven Spielberg selling movies via the romance of Petra’s rose-red tombs while Petra then sells fifteen-cent Nescafe for two dollars in a styrofoam cup.

Or maybe its the old ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ joke, with a highly air-brushed Harrison Ford.  Either way, it proves that capitalism does have a sense of humor.

The shop was closed, very early this particular morning.  I checked.  I actually would have bought the coffee.  I woke before dawn and waited  for the Petra visitor center gates to open as the sun came up, trying to beat the expected 110F heat and the crowds.

My son Wesley pointed out this sign as he and I crossed the last wastes of parking lot.  I don’t think Petra was ‘cool’ in his 10-year old mind until he linked it to Indiana Jones.  Then it became something more than just another museum or another run-down castle he was forced to visit.  It became a video game, a backdrop, a place he understood.  He began to ask the first of a couple hundred 10-year old questions about Crusaders and the Holy Grail and whether or not college professors really do use bull whips.

It made me wonder whether relics of this sort, as beautiful and empty as Petra, have a value of their own or whether value only exists to the degree that a site, or an object, or an idea, resonates with a person.  Do all our histories require Steven Spielberg’s intervention so that they too might survive in the psyche of our children?

After a few more minutes Wesley and I passed beyond the visitor center gates, went down the vacant gravel footpath to the Siq, that narrow canyon through the keyhole of which, at the far end, are the remarkable ruins themselves.  We were mostly alone.  The moment was a full one for me, an almost holy feeling.  Yet it had been touched, at the outset, with a healthy dose of Not Quite Right.

Strange Pyramids

One of the pyramids at Merowe, northern Sudan.

Who can think of the Middle East without forming a mental image of pyramids?

Despite ideas of golden sarcophaguses and huge temples, it is important to note that not all pyramids are created equal.  My visit to Sudan included a stop at the Kushite (25th Dynasty) site of Merowe, near the 6th Cataract of the River Nile.  Here the pyramids are much, much less massive than the more famous Giza pyramids outside Cairo.  And they’re thinner, pointier, different.  Not quite right.

But, these pyramids are famous in their own right . . . they’re featured on the back of the US $1 bill with the all-seeing eye floating above!


A lot of speculation exists, conspiracy theories that label George Washington and the other founding fathers of the United States as having planned world domination and planted secret guiding symbols in plain sight.

Seeing the pyramids at Merowe, drifted over in red sand, crumbling, covered with graffiti, it is hard to imagine that any particular intent, any forethought, went into the choice of an obscure, skinny tomb for the Great Seal of the United States.  Yet I wonder, what artist decided on this particular type of pyramid for the dollar bill?  How did he know its dimensions, its form and tilt?  Did he visit Merowe?  And, why, why are all these little pyramids decapitated, flattened at the top . . . just as if the eye was meant to float there?

It’s a mystery that will probably never be answered, a little piece of not quite right that I’ve carried around in my wallet, never wondering, for far too long.

What is Not Quite Right?

Not Quite Right:  It’s that feeling, at odd moments when traveling or living abroad — say, for instance, watching a man on a desert road carry a cardboard box on his head, sloshing full of water and fish — when you just have to look twice, reconfirm the presence of fish, and prove to yourself you weren’t just imagining.

Fishermen in the inner harbor, Sur, Oman.

The funny thing is, often this idea works both ways.

After a moment you might say:  “Hmmm, fish in a box . . . why not?”

And then you might say:  “You know, a couple years ago when I tried to carry that slippery critter back from the boatdock with my bare hands . . . maybe a cardboard box wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.”

And, even later, you might come full circle, saying something like: “Why, when there are so many perfectly good cardboard boxes in the world, do fishermen bother with ice coolers?”

I think such moments are important, cutting both directions.  It’s needed in our world now, little instances, accumulations of detail to show us we are all interlinked and that our different ways of being, though different, aren’t necessarily better or worse.  Traveling for the last year, I’ve experienced this not quite right moment almost daily.  This blog is my attempt to share not only the specific  observations I’ve accumulated but also the sense of how life abroad, and really seeing, can change perceptions.