In his essay on the Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Borges ‘quotes’ the following passage from “a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that all animals are divided into:
(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) tame ones, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids or sirens, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) those that have just broken the flower vase, (n) those that, at a distance, resemble flies.
Reading Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials – a singularly unique book way beyond any formulaic description. In the simplest of summations, it is a book about oil (naphta) as a living entity which is the secret daemonic ‘angel’ of the Middle East. Here is a tiny fragment from the section on Paleopetrology [p.17]:
Petroleum’s hadean formation developed a satanic sentience …. (envenomed) by the totalitarian logic of the tetragrammaton, yet chemically and morphologically depraving and traumatizing Divine logic, petroleum’s autonomous line of emergence is twisted beyond recognition.
To think about it, describing this work as a book is to somehow diminish the effect; rather, it is a codex of mythological proportions; a tractatus of speculative theology invoking petroleum science, the archaeology of ancient Persia and Mesopotamia, unnameable inorganic daemons, the ‘secret assassins sect known as Delta Force’, Deleuzean war machines, ancient artifacts, numerological analysis of the ‘Gog-Magog Axis’, and more, mind-bogglingly more.
Just received my copy of Nassim Taleb’s latest book The Bed of Procrustes. Excellent hardcover edition, beautiful typeface, and that’s not mentioning the sharp writing Taleb is famous for*. The aphorisms in the prelude already set the stage –
An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion
– and it only gets better from there. The very idea of basing the book on the myth of Procrustes is brilliant. As Taleb points out in a footnote, the Procrustean myth isn’t just about the obvious allusion to an arbitrary frame into which everything must fit; it is also about changing the wrong variables when things don’t work. The same idea is captured in a poem by Bertold Brecht:
“On many occasions, under the influence of wine, Liu Ling would be completely free and unrestrained, sometimes even removing his clothes and sitting stark naked in the middle of his room. Some people once saw him in this state and chided him for it. Ling retorted, ‘Heaven and earth are my pillars and roof, the rooms of my house are my jacket and trousers. What are you gentlemen doing in my trousers?”
“In antiquity when someone gripped by an obsession for flowers heard tale of a rare blossom, even if it were in a deep valley or in steep mountains, he would not be afraid of stumbling and would go searching for it… When a flower was about to bloom, he would move his pillow and mat and sleep alongside it to observe how the flower would evolve from budding to blooming to fading. Only after it lay withered on the ground would he take his leave… This is what is called genuine love of flowers; this is what is called genuine connoisseurship.”
In the story Stealing a Peach Pu Songling tells of witnessing an incredible conjurer trick which, were it known from only this account, would surely be discounted as fruit of his rich imagination. The trick, as told by the old master, consists of a conjurer throwing a cord into the sky, which immediately snaps tout and extends as far up as the eyes can see. The conjurer’s assistant then climbs the cord on some pretext (in the story it is to steal a peach from the heavenly garden), and disappears from view. First, a peach falls from the sky to be followed by severed limbs falling one by one, followed by the severed head and torso of the assistant. The conjurer then gathers the scattered body parts, puts them in a bag, and then suddenly the assistant jumps out alive and well out of the bag. All of this happens in front of the eyes of thousands of onlookers. Unbelievable. However, virtually the same trick is narrated in the chronicles of that greatest traveler of all – Ibn Battuta – who saw it during his visit to the imperial court in Beijing around the year 1348, more than 300 years earlier than Pu Songling. Thankfully, wikisource saves me from typing the entire story as narrated by Pu Songling and Ibn Battuta by providing the relevant section in a footnote to the Travels of Marco Polohere:
“That same night a juggler, who was one of the Kan’s slaves, made his appearance, and the Amir said to him, ‘Come and show us some of your marvels.’ Upon this he took a wooden ball, with several holes in it, through which long thongs were passed, and, laying hold of one of these, slung it into the air. It went so high that we lost sight of it altogether. (It was the hottest season of the year, and we were outside in the middle of the palace court.) There now remained only a little of the end of a thong in the conjuror’s hand, and he desired one of the boys who assisted him to lay hold of it and mount. He did so, climbing by the thong, and we lost sight of him also! The conjuror then called to him three times, but getting no answer, he snatched up a knife as if in a great rage, laid hold of the thong, and disappeared also! By and bye he threw down one of the boy’s hands, then a foot, then the other hand, and then the other foot, then the trunk, and last of all the head! Then he came down himself, all puffing and panting, and with his clothes all bloody, kissed the ground before the Amir, and said something to him in Chinese. The Amir gave some order in reply, and our friend then took the lad’s limbs, laid them together in their places, and gave a kick, when, presto! there was the boy, who got up and stood before us! All this astonished me beyond measure, and I had an attack of palpitation like that which overcame me once before in the presence of the Sultan of India, when he showed me something of the same kind. They gave me a cordial, however, which cured the attack. The Kazi Afkharuddin was next to me, and quoth he, ‘Wallah! ’tis my opinion there has been neither going up nor coming down, neither marring nor mending; ’tis all hocus pocus!'”
If that story is not enough, there is the eyewitness account of a Western traveler – one Edward Melton – who witnessed the trick in a performance by a Chinese troupe of conjurers while visiting Batavia (Jakarta) in 1670 – more or less the same time Pu Songling saw it in his native Shandong. Melton’s story goes as follows:
“But now I am going to relate a thing which surpasses all belief, and which I should scarcely venture to insert here had it not been witnessed by thousands before my own eyes. One of the same gang took a ball of cord, and grasping one end of the cord in his hand slung the other up into the air with such force that its extremity was beyond reach of our sight. He then immediately climbed up the cord with indescribable swiftness, and got so high that we could no longer see him. I stood full of astonishment, not conceiving what was to come of this; when lo! a leg came tumbling down out of the air. One of the conjuring company instantly snatched it up and threw it into the basket whereof I have formerly spoken. A moment later a hand came down, and immediately on that another leg. And in short all the members of the body came thus successively tumbling from the air and were cast together into the basket. The last fragment of all that we saw tumble down was the head, and no sooner had that touched the ground than he who had snatched up all the limbs and put them in the basket turned them all out again topsy-turvy. Then straightway we saw with these eyes all those limbs creep together again, and in short, form a whole man, who at once could stand and go just as before, without showing the least damage! Never in my life was I so astonished as when I beheld this wonderful performance, and I doubted now no longer that these misguided men did it by the help of the Devil. For it seems to me totally impossible that such things should be accomplished by natural means.”
I am reading Pu Songling‘s Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio with 19th century Chinese lithograph illustrations for each story, and they are simply exquisite pieces of wonder. A master storyteller narrating a world of ghosts, fox-spirits, Taoist wizards, Buddhist holy men, macabre murders, surreal love, wall paintings serving as gateways to alternate realities, and an everyday life thoroughly blended with magic. As Pu Songling introduces the stories:
Here in the civilized world,
Stranger events by far occur
Than in the Country of Cropped Hair;
Before our eyes
Weirder tales unfold
Than in the Nation of Flying Heads.
With every story I read I keep returning more and more to my recent trek through China. Here is an excerpt from The Taoist Priest of Mount Lao:
…hearing that there were a large number of Taoist adepts living up on Mount Lao, one day he shouldered his knapsack and set out on a trip in that direction. He climbed one of the peaks, and found himself before a monastery, tucked away in the middle of nowhere.