On what happens when otherwise mundane, familiar items are placed together – in museum displays, encyclopaedias, and other strange situations – and what these relationships reveal.
It’s been observed that the proverbial road to Hell is littered with the best intentions of those who follow its path; similarly, chaos is so often the outcome of our efforts to put things in order. According to the Genesis myth, the world began with a primitive taxonomy of created entities (day separated from night, water from earth, beasts of the sky from beasts of the land, man from woman), but that order descended quickly and repeatedly into chaos. Humanity was given the gift of its own existence, and we left the packaging strewn around and the box tipped open to satisfy our perpetual Pandoric urge.
The lesson many have taken from such myths is that we as a species ought to stop screwing things up, but we might instead observe a truism that we can learn to work around and with: that there is no order without chaos. Or, that order itself invents chaos. If we want the one, we must do our best with the other. And there are forms of chaos – of mess, disorder, and inadvertent consequences – that we may creatively engage with rather than hope to avoid.
Take the strangeness that can emerge from taxonomies, for instance. On this topic, Borges is a typically useful guide. In his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, Borges tells us about a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” – don’t go looking for it, it almost certainly doesn’t exist – called The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In this fantastical book, which seeks to identify every conceivable item in the universe within a purpose-built vocabulary, animals are classified, absurdly, as:
“(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) those that are embalmed, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) those included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that look like flies from a long way off.”
Such wonderful absurdity, seemingly infinite in its variety, emerges as a necessary product of the attempt to wrestle the universe into the straitjacket of our present understanding. In order to name everything, we must imagine everything, and the further we try to straighten out reality, the more tangled we become in its strangeness, like a strip of tape that wraps more tightly into self-stuck knots around our fingers as we attempt to peel ourselves free.
We need not turn to fictitious taxonomies like Borges’ satirical classification system to discover this imaginative strangeness. Real taxonomies – such as those found in museums the world over, or in the random associations born of the alphabetical ordering of encyclopaedias – produce the same effect, which Foucault described as the “power of enchantment”. This effect is brought about, he writes in The Order of Things, by “the sudden vicinity of things that have no relation to each other”.
In an impromptu experiment for this essay, I take my dictionary off the shelf and turn to a random page: I am brought from the diet of consuming seed-bearing structures of flowering plants (fruitarian) to the literary term for that which is sooty or dusky (fuliginous) via the fruitful frustration of frutescent terms becoming fuddled on fugacious and fugitiveassociations between fulgent words.
I could have done similarly with an encyclopaedia and marvelled at the juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated topics lined up side by side to eye each other warily as they are introduced to each other, sometimes for the first time, by the accident of their alphabetical proximity to each other. Instead, I turn to an online resource that frequently stokes my curiosity – Maria Popova’s wonderful project, Brain Pickings.
On the homepage, I am greeted by the poet-philosopher Etal Adnan and her thoughts on living and dying well. One click on the “Surprise Me” button in the sidebar and I am whisked through Popova’s many essays to land at a piece on Martin Luther King’s “three ways of resisting the system”. Aside from a random juxtaposition of two great thinkers, this second article also bears the serendipitous coincidence of MLK’s resistance to “the system” with my current thinking on the way chaos resists systems of order. Instantly, an association is created between two concepts that previously had “no relation to each other”.
Foucault has already come up in this essay, and my mind is drawn from the proximity of disparate items to the broad school of postmodernism that Foucault is associated with. I have elsewhere made my scepticism of postmodernism clear, but the penny must be paid when the busker plays a tune well, so let’s acknowledge that in combining highbrow and lowbrow cultures, postmodernism has created interesting amalgams of literature, cinema, and art. Were I not brought up in a postmodern society, Art Of Conversation – with its blending of metaphysics and Marvel movies or Nietzsche and Netflix – likely wouldn’t exist.
What else might not exist if it weren’t for our human compulsion to seek the strange? Nothing less, it occurs to me, than metaphor and simile, without which both our language and literature would be the poorer. James Wood writes in How Fiction Works that “metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imaginative process in one move”. A little further down the paragraph, he says that every simile and metaphor is “a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction”.
But I have run ahead without first accounting for the relationship I am proposing between metaphor (and simile) and the hidden bonds between things seemingly alien to each other. Look at the basic mechanics of metaphor. “His smile was an avalanche” is a metaphor that doesn’t work because the latter reveals nothing about the former. The metaphor doesn’t help us to see the smile more clearly. Are we to take this line to mean his smile was somehow white and cold, or rolling down his face, or burying us? If metaphors illuminate, this one isn’t even a light gone out, it is a rock mistaken for a bulb.
To be clear, “his smile was an avalanche” isn’t a failure because smiles and avalanches are very different things. Try this simile:
“His smile was strained, smearing his face like a slide of the knife across butter, revealing his teeth like a secret that scared children.”
Knives in butter are worlds apart from sickly smiles, as are teeth and terrifying secrets, yet these similes bring us closer to the picture and show us better detail. We may not know what the secret is that scares children, but we know we don’t want to see those teeth that evoke this image. The knife in butter, too, brings to mind a smile that takes some work to “smear” on his face (a word that illustrates the ugliness of the expression). Butter is a treat, often evoked in the cliché about smiles that “melt like butter”, and yet here it is made repugnant by the parallel image of butter staining someone’s mouth, which no one wants to see, and by the presence of the knife, which evokes danger and sharpness. All of this tells us, without directly saying it, that this man’s smile betrays an unlikeable character behind it.
What is most important, then, about these strange relations is not the distance between them or the ways in which they differ, but the hidden similarities revealed only by the clever union of two apparently mismatched things. These hidden similarities, once discovered, reveal truths about each other and the world in which they emerge. What is so invaluable about these strange relations is that they are revelatory. Revelation is their gift to us. It is revelation of deep, profound truth that transforms us: just as the bringing together of distinct things transforms each of them, as happens in a useful metaphor, we are brought together with a previously unknown truth that reveals a new mode of being, and it changes us.
Originality is an almost sacred concept in contemporary art and, increasingly, our personal lives, but perhaps we mistake its source. We so often believe originality comes from creation ex nihilo, the wholesale manifestation of previously non-existent things. But in the bringing together of already existing items in unique unions, we can re-create, or discover the new amidst the old. To underline the point, let me recycle from Jim Jarmusch (a filmmaker who once brought together the actress Tilda Swinton and the concept of rock-star vampires to create a movie that is utterly unique):
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination ... If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent ... In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.’”
• “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, in Otras Inquisiciones (1937–1952), Jorges Luis Borges (1952)
• The Order of Things, Michel Foucault (1966)
• How Fiction Works, James Wood (2008)
• “Things I’ve Learned: Jim Jarmusch”, in MovieMaker [online] (2013)