J. G. Ballard created a series of four graphically experimental text collages in the late 1950s. The work was later titled Project for a New Novel. Read more about them and see the other three images in the British Library post, Text collages by J G Ballard, c. 1958.
Bodhidharma left his robe and bowl to his chosen successor; and each patriarch thereafter handed it down to the monk that, in his wisdom, he had chosen as the next successor. Gunin was the fifth such Zen patriarch. One day he announced that his successor would be he who wrote the best verse expressing the truth of their sect. The learned chief monk of Gunin’s monastery thereupon took brush and ink, and wrote in elegant characters:
The body is a Bodhi-tree
The soul a shining mirror:
Polish it with study
Or dust will dull the image.
No other monk dared compete with the chief monk. But at twilight Yeno*, a lowly disciple who had been working in the kitchen, passed through the hall where the poem was hanging. Having read it, he picked up a brush that was lying nearby, and below the other poem he wrote in his crude hand:
Bodhi is not a tree;
There is no shining mirror.
Since All begins with Nothing
Where can dust collect?
Later that night Gunin, the fifth patriarch, called Yeno to his room. “I have read your poem,” said he, “and have chosen you as my successor. Here: take my robe and my bowl. But our chief monk and the others will be jealous of you and may do you harm. Therefore I want you to leave the monastery tonight, while the others are asleep.”
In the morning the chief monk learned the news, and immediately rushed out, following the path Yeno had taken. At midday he overtook him, and without a word tried to pull the robe and bowl out of Yeno’s hands.
Yeno put down the robe and the bowl on a rock by the path. “These are only things which are symbols,” he said to the monk. “If you want the things so much, please take them.”
The monk eagerly reached down and seized the objects. But he could not budge them. They had become heavy as a mountain.
“Forgive me,” he said at last, “I really want the teaching, not the things. Will you teach me?”
Yeno replied, “Stop thinking this is mine and stop thinking this is not mine. Then tell me, where are you? Tell me also: what did your face look like, before your parents were born?”
*Yeno (Hui-neng, 638-713), traditionally considered the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen sect in China
Or, what do an 18th Century English antiquarian, an early 20th Century Indiana lawyer, Adlai Stevenson, Commander Spock and an obscure 1970s singer have in common?
Apologies for invoking the faddish Doge meme in the title of this piece, but it seemed oddly and counter-intuitively appropriate for a discussion of desiderata, a strange English word from from the Latin desideratum (plural desiderata), meaning: something that is wished for, or considered desirable. According to the OED, the first appearance of the word “desiderata” in the English language was in 1651 in the religious treatise Act of Oblivion, by English theologian Nathanael Culverwell. Culverwell employs a “book of life” metaphor for good Christians achieving the perfection of divine grace (emphasis mine):
Whereas a Christian’s life shall be set out in a new edition; for all errata shall be corrected. Every iniquity shall be blotted out, and all desiderata shall be supplied; the book shall become perfect, and be looked on as a fair object to all eternity
This is basically the same sentiment that returns nearly three hundred years later in the song “When You Wish upon a Star,” written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio:
When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
But let’s back up a bit. Francis Peck (1692–1743) was an English antiquary who published the book pictured above, Desiderata Curiosa, in 1779. An “antiquary” is itself a nice piece of antiquarian language, defined by Wikipedia like this: [Read more…] about Such desiderata of desiderata. Many antiquary. So curiosa. Wow.
I have been searching online for years for this story that’s been half-submerged in my memory, with no luck; I finally found it in an old journal entry dated June 8, 1985. It was cut out of a newspaper, but I have no idea which one, and I can’t find this exact version of the story anywhere:
One day Einstein was asked by a pesky reporter to describe his theory of relativity in a few simple words. He responded with the following story:
“A man was asked by a blind man to describe the color white. The man said, ‘White is the color of a swan.’ The blind man said, ‘What is a swan?’ The man said, ‘A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.’
“The blind man asked, ‘What is crooked?’ The man was becoming impatient. He grabbed the blind man’s arm, straightened it and said, ‘This is straight.’ Then he bent it and said, ‘And this is crooked.’
“Whereupon the blind man quickly said, ‘Yes, yes, thank you. Now I know what white is.'”
So there’s the first clue why I could never find this story online — I had thought it was one of John Cage’s zen stories, but it’s actually a story told by Einstein. This in itself is a good illustration of the fallibility of memory. Here is another version I found, and this fits the pattern of all the references I found to this story:
Einstein and his blindfriend. This story shows how complex Einstein could be. Not long after his arrival in Princeton he was invited, by the wife of one of the professors of mathematics at Princeton, to be guest of honor at a tea.-Reluctantly, Einstein consented. After the tea had progressed for a time, the excited hostess, thrilled to have such an eminent guest of honor, fluttered out into the center of activity and with raised arms silenced the group. Bubbling out some words expressing her thrill and pleasure, she turned to Einstein and said: “I wonder, Dr. Einstein, if you would be so kind as to explain to my guests in a few words, just what is relativity theory?”
Without any hesitation Einstein rose to his feet and told a story. He said he was reminded of a walk he one day had with his blind friend. The day was hot and he turned to the blind friend and said, “I wish I had a glass of milk.”
“Glass,” replied the blind friend, “I know what that is. But what do you mean by milk?”
“Why, milk is a white fluid,” explained Einstein.
“Now fluid, I know what that is,” said the blind man. “but what is white ?”
“Oh, white is the color of a swan’s feathers.”
“Feathers, now I know what they are, but what is a swan?”
“A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.”
“Neck, I know what that is, but what do you mean by crooked?”
At this point Einstein said he lost his patience. He seized his blind friend’s arm and pulled it straight. “There, now your arm is straight,” he said. Then he bent the blind friend’s arm at the elbow. “Now it is crooked.”
“Ah,” said the blind friend. “Now I know what milk is.”
And Einstein, at the tea, sat down.
Now the plot thickens. Here is a similar version of the milk story, but with Einstein now completely out of the picture, as told by the Hungarian-British writer George Mikes, in one of his books, which I found quoted in a post to the Pakistan Gardening Forum, of all places:
A blind man asks a young girl to describe milk. The young girl is astonished that he doesn’t even know what milk is. “Milk is white,” she tells him. The old man tells her that he is blind and doesn’t know what white means. The young girl tells him that this is very easy to explain and tells him that a swan is white. The old man tells her that a swan may be white, but he has never seen a swan. “It has a curved neck,” she tells him. The blind man says that he has no idea what ‘curved’ is. She lifts her arm, bends her wrists forward like a swan’s neck. “Feel it,” she says, “that’s curved.” The old man feels the girl’s arm, touches the girl’s wrist and exclaims joyfully: “Thank God. Now at last I know what milk is.”
What of this strange connection between the “white” things called “milk” and “swans”? Turns out that goes back to Hinduism and Sanskrit, according to the swan page on Wikipedia:
Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan’s feather does not get wet although it is in water. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and it is the vehicle of many deities like the goddess Saraswati. It is mentioned several times in the Vedic literature, and persons who have attained great spiritual capabilities are sometimes called Paramahamsa (“Great Swan”) on account of their spiritual grace and ability to travel between various spiritual worlds. In the Vedas, swans are said to reside in the summer on Lake Manasarovar and migrate to Indian lakes for the winter. They’re believed to possess some powers such as the ability to eat pearls. They are also believed to be able to drink up the milk and leave the water from a saucer of milk adulterated with water. This is taken as a great quality, as shown by this Sanskrit verse:
Hamsah shwetah, bakah shwetah, kah bhedah hamsa bakayo?
Neeraksheera viveketu, Hamsah hamsah, bakah bakah!
(The swan is white, the duck is white, so how to differentiate between both of them? With the milk-water test, the swan is proven swan, the duck is proven duck!)
I guess the ancients required empirical evidence to distinguish a swan from a duck, a task that many modern humans can perform with relative ease.
Of all the versions of this story that might be floating around the universe, I like the original one I clipped from an unknown newspaper all those years ago, because to me the idea of describing the color white to a blind person is much more abstract and interesting than describing what milk is, since milk, after all, is a substance that can be discerned by other senses. But how can you possibly describe “white” without referencing other things? Such is relativity.
Kilian Jornet is my new hero. The 25 year old long distance runner, skier, skyrunner, and all around ultra-athlete has been winning the longest races and setting new speed records running up and down mountains all over the world. He’s also a very good writer. I just finished reading his book Run or Die, which has a beautiful comparison of what he does on mountains to art:
A great athlete is one who takes advantage of the ability that genetics have brought him in order to secure great achievements, but an exceptional athlete is one who can swim in the waters of complexity and chaos, making what seems difficult easy, creating order from chaos. Creative individuals search for chaos in order to explore all the places they can imagine beyond the frontiers of consciousness, following the irrational forces that come from within themselves and from their environment.
Perhaps I run because I need to feel creative. I need to know what is inside me and then see it realized somewhere outside me. We can explore our inner selves and know what we are capable of, but perhaps we also need to externalize that and separate it out from our bodies in order to view it as spectators, in order to evaluate it and see the defects so that we can do it again, better. It is a pleasure intrinsic to the creation of beauty.
A race is like a work of art; it is a creation that requires not only technique and work but also inspiration to reach a satisfactory outcome. But also, it is ephemeral, because like a Buddhist mandala, the enjoyment comes in the creating of it; at the moment of climax, at the point when it has reached its perfection, it disappears and will be impossible to create exactly ever again. There can be no repeats; we can relive similar emotions and experience familiar sensations, but they will never take the same shape, because inspiration leads us to explore different forms. (Run or Die, p. 177-178)
Killian Jornet is truly a running artist. Not an artist who runs, but a runner whose very act of running is the work of art. People focus on the endurance feats and the speed records, but reading his book you can tell that he is mostly concerned about living each moment of a run as an adventure unto itself.
…I think I run simply because I like doing it; I enjoy every minute and don’t wonder why. I know that when I am running and skiing, my body and mind are in harmony and allow me to feel that I am free, can fly, and can express myself through all my talents. The mountain is a blank canvas, and I’m the paintbrush that refuses to obey a paint-by-number pattern. Running provides my imagination with the means to express itself and delve into my inner self. (Run or Die, p. 176)
That’s a perfect description of why we create art, whether a painting, a song or a mountain leap: providing the imagination with the means to express itself. A few months ago The New York Times Magazine published a great profile piece on Jornet, Becoming the All-Terrain Human, by Christopher Solomon. It is a good introduction to Jornet’s world and all that he has accomplished. And remember, he’s still only twenty-five.
This is a fundamental question we face in our daily naming work, and, we think, is a central issue for most companies. How do you nurture the most creative environment: creative isolation or collaborating in teams? We have found in our work that a balance or interplay of these two strategies consistently yields the most interesting results. If the balance swings too much toward individual creative isolation, great work may be created but might reach a dead end, or lead to missed opportunities or a disconnect with project goals. On the other hand, if there is too much emphasis on collaboration, ideas may wither, become recycled, or lack the depth that sustained introspective exploration can bring.
Writing in the New York Times last year (The Rise of the New Groupthink), Susan Cain made a passionate case for introverts and the power of solitude in creative endeavors:
Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
Cain goes on to extol the virtues of the often unheralded work performed by creative isolationists by citing the well known example of Apple’s two founding fathers:
Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.
Cain’s polemic, as might be expected, unleashed a backlash from proponents of collaboration in letters to the Times (The Key to Creativity: Solitude or Teams?), which make some persuasive counter-arguments. Keith Sawyer writes of scientific and educational research into the value of collaboration,
Decades of scientific research have revealed that great creativity is almost always based in collaboration, conversation and social networks — just the opposite of our mythical image of the isolated genius. And educational research has found that deeper learning results when students participate in thoughtful argumentation and discuss reasons and concepts.
Ed Donovan writes that Cain makes a mistake by conflating true collaboration with “groupthink”:
The collaborative process may benefit from the input of individuals who are creative high achievers, but it’s not dependent on them; what’s required are the actual stakeholders whose concerns are threatened by a conflict or a problem. Collaboration is at a far end of the problem-solving spectrum from mind-numbing, creativity-suppressing groupthink.
And Stephen Bertman refers to earlier civilizations as models of creative collaboration:
The creative balance that Susan Cain seeks between individual and group thinking was sought (and found) almost 25 centuries ago by the ancient Greeks. Treasuring personal introspection, they nurtured the life of the individual human mind that gave birth to the rational quest for truth known as philosophy. But, as the symposiums presided over by Socrates show, the Greeks also recognized the synergistic power of multiple minds working together toward a common goal.
Later, the Library of Alexandria became the world’s first think tank as inventive scientists gathered and inspired one another to produce mechanical marvels as dazzling in their own way as the electronic wonders of today.
In the dynamic tension between the individual and the group, the Greeks found the intellectual engine that powered their civilization — and can power ours, if we choose to use it.
On the other hand, some very influential artists and thinkers have been exemplars of the creative isolation approach, showing that Sawyer’s “mythical image of the isolated genius” is not quite so mythical, as the following four quotes attest:
“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”~Rollo May (1909–1994), American existential psychologist.
“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”~Franz Kafka (1883–1924), German-language writer of novels and short stories, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.
“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”~Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer, and one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.
“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”~Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.
We have found that creative isolation can lead to some of the best invention, but creative collaboration is necessary to turn invention into action and execution. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs would probably both have had amazing careers as individuals, but Apple could only have been born from the synergistic fusion of their two unique talents and visions. And Tesla may have been the greater genius, but Thomas Edison was more socially adept and able to bring his ideas to a larger audience.
What do you think, and what works best for you company? Use the comments below or in a social media conversation to chime in with your stories of isolation vs. collaboration in a creative environment.
Diogenes is a peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes papers four times a year in the field of Philosophy and the Humanities. It has been publishing since 1953, when issue No. 3, above, was published, with a great cover by famed modernist designer Alvin Lustig (1915-1955), who trained at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles and briefly studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. Sadly, they no longer hire great designers to make interesting covers, as you can see on their website at the link above.
The journal is named after Diogenes of Sinope (412/404-323 BC), an ancient Greek philosopher also known as Diogenes the Cynic, and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy:
Diogenes of Sinope was a controversial figure. His father minted coins for a living, and when Diogenes took to “defacement of the currency,” he was banished from Sinope. After being exiled, he moved to Athens to debunk cultural conventions. Diogenes modelled himself on the example of Hercules. He believed that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory. He used his simple lifestyle and behaviour to criticise the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt society. He declared himself a cosmopolitan. There are many tales about him dogging Antisthenes’ footsteps and becoming his faithful hound, but it is by no means certain that the two men ever met. Diogenes made a virtue of poverty. He begged for a living and slept in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace. He became notorious for his philosophical stunts such as carrying a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man. He embarrassed Plato, disputed his interpretation of Socrates and sabotaged his lectures. Diogenes was also responsible for publicly mocking Alexander the Great.
After being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, Diogenes eventually settled in Corinth. There he passed his philosophy of Cynicism to Crates, who taught it to Zeno of Citium, who fashioned it into the school of Stoicism, one of the most enduring schools of Greek philosophy. None of Diogenes’ many writings has survived, but details of his life come in the form of anecdotes (chreia), especially from Diogenes Laërtius, in his book Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. All we have is a number of anecdotes concerning his life and sayings attributed to him in a number of scattered classical sources, none of them definitive. [Wikipedia: Diogenes of Sinope]
Here is a cool (and funny) video — made by a “professional philosopher” — that provides a good overview of the life and philosophy of Diogenes:
Cynical fun with etymology
Because Diogenes believed that dogs were prefect beings, faithful and honest, always living in the moment without pretense, he earned the nickname “Diogenes the Dog.” The Greek word for dog is “kyon,” with the adjective form “kyonikos” (“dog-like”), which is the root for the modern name of his philosophy, Cynicism. Does that mean your dog is cynical? Yes, but not in the modern meaning of the word:
Cynicism, in its original form, refers to the beliefs of an ancient school of Greek philosophers known as the Cynics. Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans. The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BCE. He was followed by Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a tub on the streets of Athens. Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the 1st century, and Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the Empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century, although some have claimed that early Christianity adopted many of its ascetic and rhetorical ideas.
By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. [Wikipedia: Cynicism (philosophy)]
So your loyal dog is a Cynic philosopher, but not a cynic. “Diogenes” would be a good name for him. Or “Alvin.”
“John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. Nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by their adaptation to change.” ~Robert Rauschenberg
Alec Baldwin shares this quote from an episode of his radio show Here’s the Thing on NPR. I believe the passage is from Rauschenburg’s obituary and can be heard at 29:20 of this podcast. I have almost worked my way through the entire series of very thoughtful interviews. Other shows have featured interviews with Kristen Wiig, Dick Cavett, Herb Alpert, Chris Rock, Lorne Michaels, Erica and Molly Jong, David Letterman and Michael Douglas.
After being a loyal KQED Public Radio 88.50 listener for over 15 years, recently I often find my ear bending toward “the oldest non-commercial FM signal west of the Mississippi,” 91.7 FM, KALW. Why? Perhaps its the charming 6:49 AM “What’s For Lunch In The San Francisco Public Schools” announcement, Jim Hightower’s commentary at 7:49 AM, or the 9:01 AM Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. Then again, it could be the outstanding weekend programing featuring the likes of Harry Shearer’s Le Show, Sound Opinions, Bullseye and one of my Sunday morning favorites, Philosophy Talk, hosted by philosophy professors John Perry and Ken Taylor. And as an equally rabid listener of linguist and NPR Fresh Air commentator Geoffrey Nunberg, I was thrilled to hear that the trio are planning to team up for a live broadcast of Philosophy Talk at the Marsh Theatre.
Here are the details from the press release / website:
Philosophy Talk live at the Marsh Theatre
November 11th 2012 12:00pm
The Linguistics of Name-Calling with Geoffrey Nunberg
Sticks and bones may break your bones, but names can also hurt you. And language gives us surprisingly many ways deride, hurt and demean – from a subtly sneering intonation to hurtful and offensive names. How does such language work? And why is there so much of it around these days? Has our acerbic political culture ushered in a new era of name-calling? Or is name calling a phenomenon as old as language itself? John and Ken welcome back linguist and NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg, author of Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years. Tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in person through The Marsh’s box office. The Marsh is located at 2120 Allston Way in Berkeley, California.
Chances are by now that you’ve heard of Christian Marclay’s brilliant work of art, The Clock (2010), though less likely that you have actually seen it (I haven’t as yet). As described by Wikipedia, the piece “is in effect a clock, but it is made of a 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related scenes from movies and some TV shows, meticulously edited to be shown in ‘real time’: each scene contains an indication of time (for instance, a timepiece, or a piece of dialogue) that is synchronized to show the actual time.”
A lot has been written about The Clock, and from what I’ve read, this is much more than just a collage of film images. The images not only work in sequence as a clock, but the pacing of the editing builds to moments of climax, as the top of the hour approaches, and then to a more relaxed pace after the hour has passed. And the soundtracks of the clips are overlapped and blended across transitions, creating new correspondences and “dialog” between disparate scenes. In short, this is a living, breathing clock, more like a day-long dream (a contemporary Ulysses?) than a typical film, clock, art work, or “typical” anything.
Check out this wonderful New Yorker profile piece by Daniel Zalewski, The Hours: How Christian Marclay created the ultimate digital mosaic. Here is an excerpt about how Marclay transforms the ordinary into art:
Part of Marclay’s fascination with the cinematic archive had to do with the way it resisted transfiguration. It wasn’t hard to turn a recorded sound into an estranged abstraction, by slowing it down or folding it into a new rhythm. But, even if you chopped a film into a single frame, specificity clung to it: Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy, Manhattan, 1961. Marclay wondered if he could fashion from familiar clips a genuinely unfamiliar film, one with its own logic, rhythm, and aesthetics. In his view, the best collages combined the “memory aspect”—recognition of the source material—with the pleasurable violence of transformation. If Marclay could turn the sky green for one day, he’d do it.
Later in the piece, Zalewski offers this observation about the paradoxical nature of time both in The Clock and in the viewing of it:
There were darker resonances, too. People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.
… There was a lineage of avant-garde cinema that, with varying degrees of obscurity, examined the temporal qualities of film. Marclay’s contribution to the cinema of duration, though, would be pleasurable to watch. He sensed a creepy challenge. If his film was sufficiently seductive, he might coax people to sit for hours, literally watching their lives tick away.
There are several copies of The Clock owned by museums or private collectors that are in circulation, touring the globe for short-run performances. Be sure to catch all or part of it when it comes to a city near you, and watch your life tick away. I can’t wait.
“The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”