The Book and the Morning Glory

https://www.wikiart.org/en/hiroshige/morning-glory

Morning glory by Hiroshige

 

I designed the following parable to deliver its moral using a fixed, but versatile formula. See whether you can spot it.


The King had a son who loved nothing better than to sit indoors and study. Despite the numerous books that already surrounded him, the young Prince was desperate to peruse his father’s grand library—a library reputed to contain the wisdom of humankind. The King repeatedly refused, year after year.

On the day he came of age, the Prince woke to a message from his father inviting him to receive a birthday present in the library. He got dressed and rushed into the courtyard, but the library was no longer there. In its place smouldered a heap of rubble. Dismayed, the Prince walked across the sooty field, sifting through the cinders, until he arrived at the centre, where he found a pedestal and on it a single, unsinged book. He leafed through it; it was blank.

The Prince looked up to see the King slowly approaching with a saddled horse. The Prince smiled, spoke a word of thanks, and tucked away the book, before taking the reins from his father.

Later that day, the peasants working the fields near the palace watched as a young man galloped past, heading for the sunset.


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Discovering Japanese Aesthetics

It is still believed [in Japan] that, although the elements found common to beauty are perhaps universal, it is their reception (the universal standard) that creates the excellence of the art.

Donald Richie, Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007)

The relativity of any “universal standard” is best exposed at the cultural boundaries, so it is prudent to investigate as many such boundaries as possible, in good light and good faith.

Finding an appropriate guide can be tricky.

Indeed, when seeking introduction to unfamiliar topics, I am wary of two types of books: the highly technical, impenetrable beasts dense with signs and shortcuts aimed at experts in a neighbouring field, and the colloquial, jokey-breezy anecdotal stories filled with mental candyfloss aimed as those desiring educational fairgrounds. Once in a while, I find myself in either readership, but usually the fairest, quickest route lies through the middle ground, and even then I require a particularly fortuitous path that caters to my strengths.

An introduction to Japanese aesthetics has been long in the planning, and only recently did I find an apt foothold.

Donald Richie’s Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007) is a brief but serious text, and one which can be read quickly, read for pleasure and insight, and at a later stage, read with a view towards references and synthesis.

Take the following quote:

If aesthetics in the West is mainly concerned with theories of art, that of Japan has always been concerned with theories of taste. What is beautiful depends not upon imagination (as Addison thought) nor qualities proper in the object (as Hume said) nor in its paradoxes (as Kant maintained) but rather on a social consensus.

You may be unfamiliar with the philosophies of Addison, Hume, and Kant, yet the gist of what Richie is saying remains intact. On the other hand, familiarity with the names only enhances the experience. Continue reading

Quirks and Perks: Playfulness

val vesa https://unsplash.com/photos/ihFWKicceNk

To be playful is to let go; it is to seduce and to be seduced, though perhaps in a small way. Finally, solemnity is the virtue from which we may someday perish, while playfulness is the vice that may yet redeem us.

—Crispin Sartwell, Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality (1996)

Playful is light-hearted, or light of heart.

It means jumping up because you can.

It means embracing the slight uncertainty of landing because nothing can be certain anyway.

It means reaching for the stars and grabbing handfuls of air because air is what we need, anyway, to breathe. Continue reading

Reading on the Fringes: Codex Seraphinianus

Codex Seraphinianus cover 1

If you’d like a bewildering encounter with an alien culture, read the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini. It’s an encyclopaedia of an imaginary world written in a fully incomprehensible language and illustrated with detailed, coloured drawings that cover all areas of life: flora, fauna, science, manufacturing, alien (humanoid) anatomy, history and ethnography, dining and fashion, and architecture.

As the act of understanding words will be limited, here is a taster of visual delights that await you in the order that you’d encounter them (and including only the ones that can plausibly be put into a few words):

Bird with a second head where a tail would be, flower that rains on itself, flower that grows laddered stalks, flower that grows leaves shaped like scissors, fruit that bleeds, apple growing within an apple, grapes growing on a banana, walnuts growing out of a fennel, matchsticks growing in a beetroot, trees growing inside trees, trees jumping off a cliff and swimming away, trees that grow into the shape of a chair, flowers that blow up to become helium balloons. Continue reading

Reading on the Fringes: The Voynich Manuscript

Reading is understanding, symbol for symbol, page for page. This understanding can take many traditional forms—literal, intuitive, passive, applicable—but it is the non-traditional forms, the anomalies, that tempt us to explore the boundaries of written communication. 

For example:

  • Calligrams, where the arrangement of words forms a shape suggestive of the meaning (blending of visual and literary arts), characteristic of Apollinare’s Calligrammes, and less so of the avant-guard poetry of E. E. Cummings.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calligrammes

From Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes.

 

  • Automatic writing, where words are produced (supposedly) without conscious will (associated with surrealism and spiritualistic séances).
  • Asemic writing, where the result is without fixed message, context, words, though it may appear regular enough to suggest meaning (a “literary” equivalent of abstract art).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Wheels_of_Transformation_.jpg

Asemic writing by Tatiana Roumelioti (CC BY-SA 4.0 ), from Wikimedia Commons

 

  • Paradoxes, absurdity, and pataphysics (science of imaginary solutions) where anomaly is the rule, or rather, to quote Canadian poet Christian Bök, the rule itself is the exception in a pataphysical science that rules out the rule. 

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Four Types of Readers

https://www.wikiart.org/en/paul-cezanne

The Four Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter by Paul Cezanne (1861)

 

What is it that draws us to quick personality tests? 

A,B,C,D,E. Please circle the most appropriate answer in the following five to twenty inane, but unbelievably insightful questions. 

The result either tells us what we already know, in different words, or what we didn’t want to hear, in diplomatic words. 

Beyond that:

A. Is the test about a sense of belonging?
(a bot says we’re two of a kind, we should hang out)

B. Or about a sense of difference?
(a bot says we’re apples and oranges, it’s okay to keep quarrelling)

C. Or is the test just a bit of fun?
(tests, fun, really, since when)

D. Or is it fun that can be used as an excellent conversation starter?
(the best we’ve got, really)

E. Or is it fun that can be used as conversation starter, while feeling smug that we lied on it because in truth we believe it’s a sneaky marketing tool sites use to poll their visitors?
(really paranoid)

F. Write-in answer: _______________

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The Text That Chooses You

https://www.wikiart.org/en/carl-spitzweg/the-book-worm/

The Book Worm by Carl Spitzweg (1850)

 

Books sit on shelves and wait for us to find them. 

Not quite.

Every book, inanimate as it is in its state of matter, may not have the attention-seeking drive of a living, brainy organism, but it does have a presence that selectively draws some of us closer, while repelling others.

Little experience with book covers (design, size, publisher’s logo) is needed before you can make a basic, almost subconscious approximation: yea or nay. A little more experience with certain authors, and you know upon associating their names to a new text where you stand in relation to it.

That’s old-school thinking. Still basically correct today, though evolved.

Subtler forces govern a book-world where shelf browsing often happens online, at clicking speed, where previews and reviews are abundant, where recommendation lists crop up unbidden (books-by-this-author, lists-with-this-book, what-others-who-liked-this-also-bought), and where many, mostly older, books are freely available on sites like gutenberg.org (50k) or archive.org (1500k). Continue reading