Kafka’s Great Wall of China, with the system of piecemeal construction, is filled with gaps and does not offer protection from barbarism. Likewise, the builders of the Tower of Babel, who purport to found a universal language, end up inviting God’s punishment, speaking different languages and becoming barbarians to each other.
Rather than failures, I subscribe to the view that these constructions succeed in their objective. Consider this: What we secretly desire are differences and barbarisms. What if the goal is not the wall but the gaps between the blocks which enable the flow of barbarians? What if we trick God into giving us the punishment so that we can escape from a unified humanity which speaks a single language?
Who has one voice and yet becomes three-footed and two-footed and four-footed? Sophocles’ Oedipus, the most suffering figure of the Greek tragedy. Oedipus crawled on three as a baby (because his ankles were pinned together by his parents who abandoned him), limped as an adult, and walked on four legs as an old man (blinding himself after he learnt that he killed his father and married his mother, he is led by his daughter Antigone).
As fate would have it, he got to his destiny by solving the riddle of the Sphinx: which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? If Oedipus grasped the riddle’s irony, he would recognize that he is the exact opposite of “human”, who should be ignorant. Wisdom is an unnatural abomination. Nietzsche saw it in the terrible trinity of Oedipus’ fates: the same man who solves the riddle of nature must also destroy the orders of nature by murdering his father and marrying his mother.
Sophocles’ closing line of the play is more eloquent yet: “Do not seek to be master in everything, for the things you mastered did not follow you throughout your life.” Given that we want to be wise, why do we not prefer to be ignorant?
The Spirit of 1776, by Archibald Willard, represents the zeitgeist of the American Revolution. It refers to the attitude of self-determination and individual liberty. The Spirit of 2016, by David Parkins for The Economist, typifies the global sentiment following the election of Donald Trump as US president. It is an unsettling zest for tribalism and authoritarianism.
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, as Herbert Simon said. When attention is scarce, secrets can be hidden. Dialogues from G. K. Chesterton’s The Sign of the Broken Sword illustrate this vividly.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a pebble?
Flambeau: On the beach.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a leaf?
Flambeau: In the forest.
Father Brown: What does he do if there is no forest?
Flambeau: What does he do?
Father Brown: He grows a forest to hide it in. A fearful sin.
Flambeau did not answer.
Father Brown: And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it.
Many religions promise a reward in the afterlife. Many “religious people” expect a reward in their current life. Their strong faith commands my respect – they do not lose their faith in spite of the hypocrisy.
Staring into the dreamy Shanghai dusk, a few lines of verse cross my mind:
The candle died, the water-clock was exhausted,
I rose and sat, but could not be at peace.
Man’s affairs are like the flow of floodwater,
A life is just like floating in a dream.
A few years ago, an up-and-coming musician magically reenacted these poetic verses, when he was down and out in Shanghai. Many centuries ago, these lines were first uttered by the last emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty. He achieved greatness in his poems, not his reign.
Jorge Luis Borges said that the world is a book in which all men are being written. Is it true that we write the verses, or the verses write us? I believe the latter. For it could be said that a single, all-knowing master has written all the books in the world. Tonight, the emperor, the Shanghai musician and me are one.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Prince Andrey enumerated the factions within the Russian high command during Napoleon’s invasion. You usually see the full range or a subset of these dynamics as a group responds to situations.
- Rigid military theorists
- Non-planners favoring spontaneous actions
- Courtiers reconciling the first two groups
- Advocates of surrendering to Napoleon
- Adherents to Barclay de Tolly
- Adherents to Bennigsen, calling for Barclay to be replaced
- Devoted worshippers of the Tsar
- Place seekers chasing crosses and promotions (the largest group)
- Older politicians who can withdraw from conflicting opinions and take an objective view
Facebookers write for the next few minutes or hours. Newspapermen write for the next few days. Corporate entertainers (consultants, economists, and all sorts of “thought leaders”) write for the next few months or, more rarely, years. A minority of academics write for the next decade or beyond. Men of letters write for time and for memory.
Life is short. The shorter the half-life of the information, the lower the signal-to-noise ratio, the less time you should spend on it.
Invest in a quality, non-collapsible umbrella. On rainy days, at times when you are standing on escalators or waiting for someone, rest your hands on it instead of checking your smartphone. It is an advertisement that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in busy efforts, and an evidence of leisure and superiority.
For the same purpose, consider carrying a quality walking-stick on sunny days.
1. Immanuel Kant’s observations on student note-taking in 1778:
Those of my students who are most capable of grasping everything are just the ones who bother least to take explicit and verbatim notes; rather, they write down only the main points, which they can think over afterwards. Those who are most thorough in note-taking are seldom capable of distinguishing the important from the unimportant. They pile a mass of misunderstood stuff under what they may possibly have grasped correctly.
2. Jorge Luis Borges’ 1942 short story Funes the Memorious on a person with perfect memory:
With no effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.