Tag Archives: Insight

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

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.