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Crustaceans Surrounded by Possessions

In effect, the only tokens of history continually available to our senses are the desirable things made by men. Of course, to say that man-made things are desirable is redundant, because man’s native inertia is overcome only by desire, and nothing gets made unless it is desirable.

Such things mark the passage of time with far greater accuracy than we know, and they fill time with shapes of a limited variety. Like crustaceans we depend for survival upon an outer skeleton, upon a shell of historic cities and houses filled with things belonging to definable portions of the past. Our ways of describing this visible past are still most awkward. The systematic study of things is less than five hundred years old, beginning with the description of works of art in the artists’ biographies of the Italian Renaissance. The method was extended to the description of all kinds of things only after 1750. Today archaeology and ethnology treat of material culture in general. The history of art treats of the least useful and most expressive products of human industry. The family of things begins to look like a smaller family than people once thought.

The oldest surviving things made by men are stone tools. A continuous series runs from them to the things of today. The series has branched many times, and it has often run out into dead ends. Whole sequences of course ceased when families of artisans died out or when civilizations collapsed, but the stream of things never was completely stilled. Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time. This continuous connection in time must contain lesser divisions.

—George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things

Inherited Modes of Thought

Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him. He finds himself in an inherited situation with patterns of thought which are appropriate to this situation and attempts to elaborate further the inherited modes of response or to substitute others for them in order to deal more adequately with the new challenges which have arisen out of the shifts and changes in his situation. Every individual is therefore in a two-fold sense predetermined by the fact of growing up in a society: on the one hand he finds a ready-made situation and on the other he finds in that situation preformed patterns of thought and of conduct.

—Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia

Potentiality of Another World

But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.

—Lilly Wachowski, in a statement

Flickering Clusters

I thought about what was so special about water and how it moves. A fluid responds to pressures by constantly changing shape in the most supple, flowing manner; it is neither rigid and brittle like a solid, nor volatile and insubstantial like a gas. Where do these special properties come from? From the invisible molecular substrate, of course. As I pondered this, I recalled one of my favorite images and phrases from all of science—that of “flickering clusters.” This poetic little phrase encapsulates a well-known theory of water according to which H20 molecules continually make fleeting little associations, thanks to the very weak hydrogen bond that can form between the 0 of one and an H of another, if they happen to be passing close enough by each other (see Figure P-1). If the flickering-clusters model of water is correct (and when I last read about it, this was somewhat unclear), then all throughout every tiny droplet of water, trillions of complex, randomly-shaped clusters of H20 molecules are forming and then falling apart every microsecond, all completely silently and invisibly. And thanks to this fantastically unstable, dynamic, stochastic substrate, the familiar and utterly stable-seeming properties of wateriness emerge.

This image is ideal, I feel, for suggesting our philosophy, according to which the familiar and stable-seeming fluidlike properties of thought emerge as a statistical consequence of a myriad tiny, invisible, independent, subcognitive acts taking place in parallel. Concepts have this fluidity, and analogies are the quintessential manifestation of it.

—Douglas Hofstadter, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies

A Literature of Inimitable Relics

Contrary to history, art describes individuals, desires only the unique. It does not classify, it unclassifies. No matter how much they may engage us, our generalizations may be likened to those pursued upon the planet Mars, and three lines drawn to intersect them might form a triangle on all the points of the universe. But consider a leaf with its intricate nerve system, its colour variegated by shade and sun; the imprint of a raindrop; the tiny mark left by an insect; the silver trace of a snail; or the first mortal touch of autumn gold. Search all the forests of the earth for another leaf exactly like it. I defy you to find one. There is no science for the teguments of a leaf, for the filaments of a cell structure, the winding of a vein, the passion of a habit, or for the twists and quirks of character.

That a man’s nose is broken; one of his eyes higher than the other; an arm shrunken; that he habitually eats chicken at a certain hour or prefers Malvoise to Chateau-Margaux… there is something unparalleled in the world. Thales might have exclaimed philosophically as well as Socrates, but he would never have scratched his leg in precisely the same manner before drinking the hemlock draught. Great minds and their ideas are humanity’s common heritage. Actually, great men themselves possess only that which is bizarre about them. To describe a man in all his anomalies a book should be a work of art, like a Japanese print whereon the image of a tiny caterpillar, seen once at one particular hour of a day, is found eternally recorded.

—Marcel Schwob, Imaginary Lives

The Effort Required to Disbelieve a World

Players had an entire “Night”—the length of which they agreed on themselves—to reach the heart of the labyrinth and find the exit. Bencivenga had surpassed his own genius by creating a maze generated by the variables determined by the rolls of the die. However, the real game began only when one of the characters finally reached the Exagon Room. The player would then ask the Night’s Eye to grant a wish from one of four categories: Love, Money, Adventure, or Knowledge. From that moment, Night began to recede and give way to Day. The other players then had two possibilities: to risk going for the Exagon Room themselves, or to head for the Exit before the Night ended and trapped them within The Mansion’s walls. That’s where the tricky part began. For every turn after entering the Exagon Room the first character had to roll the die. If a double digit (11, 22, etc.) was drawn, the game would Freeze. Freezing was a bit like Suspension in The Tower: The game would be “on hold” and could resume only when the four players were together again after the time they had allotted for Night had elapsed—a time that could range from ten hours to fifty years.

In a game that lasted ten hours a character might receive some modest benefits: finding a lost key, receiving a nice postcard from a girl they fancied, dodging a splash of coffee on their suit. When the game was extended to two weeks the boons became more interesting: a small win at the lottery, a rival in love incapacitated by illness, good marks at university. Things got better still if you dared to play on. After one year, your enemies would fall like flies; impossible lovers would be won in a fortnight; mysterious visits would reveal you to be of blue blood. In a game that lasted ten-plus years the effects would begin to reverberate over the whole world; and if you won the prize, from twenty-plus years the result would be fairy tale–like. A young woman would be proposed to by a mysterious man who would later turn out to be a prime minister; a young man would set off towards adventure and find the ruins of an unknown civilization; an unforeseen experiment would open a new branch of science; a player would write a masterpiece in the league of Flaubert or Tolstoy.

This was when things started to go awry.

—Giovanni De Feo, The Mansion of Dreadful Night

A Sublime, Collective Vision of Violence

Yes, Oe is indeed representative [“of a dying literary tradition, a tradition which was unique to the set of circumstances that produced the society of immediate postwar Japan”]—if not in style then certainly in thematic obsessions of postwar literature. Oe shares with these writers, but perhaps feels more intensely, a need for some form of transcendental spiritual experience, an experience which Oe himself terms the “sublime” and which he offers as a possible solution for some of the ills afflicting modern Japan. I would suggest, however, that this desire for the sublime is not restricted only to authors of Oe’s generation. A search for transcendental experience characterizes not only some of the best recent Japanese literature but can also be found in some of the most prominent products of popular culture, notably comic books (manga) and animation.


Confining ourselves to fiction, we can identify three major paradigms in which Oe seems to be locating the sublime. The first is a vision of violence, often of an apocalyptic type, sometimes linked with the Japanese emperor of with the Japanese past: a vision of wholesale destruction that both terrorizes and liberates his characters runs through a number of Oe’s novels. The second is Oe’s notion of a human collectivity tied to a natural setting. Often this sublime is a rural village located in a liminal space that may or may not be Oe’s own homeland of Shikoku and composed of marginals and outsiders such as Oe’s own mentally handicapped son, Hikari. These outsiders are engaged in a frequently carnivalesque confrontation with established authority. Although they often lose the fight, the process of violent confrontation itself seems to liberate them, thereby connecting this paradigm with that of the apocalyptic sublime. The third site of the sublime is the body, usually in its sexual aspect, but also in relation to violent action. Many of Oe’s characters engage in grotesque and sometimes violent sexual activity. As with the previous two paradigms, however, the very extremity of the process often coveys a form of freedom to the participants.

—Susan J. Napier, “Oe Kenzaburo and the Search for the Sublime at the End of the Twentieth Century”

A Radical Openness to Persuasion

Though the artist has beliefs, like other people, he realizes that a salient characteristic of art is a radical openness to persuasion. Even those beliefs he’s surest of, the artist puts under pressure to see if they will stand. He may have a pretty clear idea where his experiment will lead, as Dostoevsky did when he sent Raskolnikov on his unholy mission; but in so far as he’s a true artist, he does not force the results. He knows to the depths of his soul that when an artist creates in the service of wrong beliefs—that is, out of wrong opinions he mistakes for knowledge—or when he creates in the service of doctrines that may or may not be true but cannot be tested—for instance, doctrinaire Marxism or belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead—the effect of his work, admirable or otherwise, is not the effect of true art but of something else: pedagogy, propaganda, or religion.

—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

Hypertrophy of the State with Licentious Anarchy

Two contradictory principles lay at the foundation of the structure of the Russian soul, the one a natural, Dionysian, elemental paganism and the other ascetic monastic Orthodoxy. The mutually contradictory properties of the Russian people may be set out thus: despotism, the hypertrophy of the State, and on the other hand anarchism and license: cruelty, a disposition to violence, and again kindliness, humanity and gentleness: a belief in rites and ceremonies, but also a quest for truth: individualism, a heightened consciousness of personality, together with an impersonal collectivism: nationalism, laudation of self, and universalism, the ideal of the universal man: an eschatological messianic spirit of religion, and a devotion which finds its expression in externals: a search for God, and a militant godlessness: humility and arrogance: slavery and revolt. But never has Russia been bourgeois.

—Nikolai Berdyaev, The Russian Idea

Observe Changes in the Flask

First: He should be discreet and silent, revealing to no one the result of his operations.
Second: He should reside in an isolated house in an isolated position.
Third: He should choose his days and hours for labour with discretion.
Fourth: He should have patience, diligence, and perseverance.
Fifth: He should perform according to fixed rules.
Sixth: He should only use vessels of glass or glazed earthenware.
Seventh: He should be sufficiently rich to bear the expenses of his art.
Eighth: He should avoid having anything to do with princes and noblemen.

—Albertus Magnus on the qualities of the alchemist, quoted in Sean Martin’s Alchemy and Alchemists