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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Sunday, September 26, 2004 - 09:14 am:   

Recently, I was re-reading Foucault's The Order of Things, and I came across a passage I had forgotten having read.

It is fairly widely known that the plants have hatreds between themselves...it is said that the olive and the vine hate the cabbage; the cucumber flies from the olive...Since they grow by means of the sun's warmth and the earth's humour, it is inevitable that any thick and opaque tree should be pernicious to the others, and also the tree that has several roots.


How could I have forgotten this? The passage is from a 1656 French translation of a text by Cardan, who was trying to make sense of the distribution in space of plant life, and could only grasp it through the paradigm of sympathy/antipathy. Foucault explains that this was how people thought at the time, before the Classical age brought its ordering of differences and identities to replace the reliance on semblances. Perhaps.

But what interested me was the possibilities for imaginative fiction this kind of thing presents. As a couple threads on Jeff Vandermeer's board have shown, old texts are a goldmine of imaginary real estate, societies, and creatures.

So here's my question/challenge: How many of you have encountered some quirky little Weltanschauung in your reading, some bizarre window into alien thoughtways? Care to share?
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Robert Burke Richardson
Posted on Sunday, September 26, 2004 - 09:50 am:   

^I too know the lure of old texts. I stupidly took my laptop to the University library, thinking I could get a few hours of writing done, and of course wandered for the entire time. I find it particularly rewarding to pick a random spot in a really huge collection -- that introduces you to books you'd never deliberately seek out.

This isn't quite on topic, but I do find that reading Foucault, with his interest in history and philosophy, inspires fiction from me rather than non-fiction.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Sunday, September 26, 2004 - 10:23 am:   

Hmm... Just noticed I misspelled "weird" in the heading. Hope that doesn't set anyone's teeth on edge but mine.
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Robert Burke Richardson
Posted on Sunday, September 26, 2004 - 10:39 am:   

^I thought it was Wired.

Hmm. Maybe Cory Doctorow will post :-)
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Sunday, September 26, 2004 - 01:10 pm:   

Robert, that WOULD be weird. And if Doctorow's booked up, maybe Chris Hables Gray will favor us with his views concerning why we are all cyborgs.

Oh, in the same book by Foucault, he talks about the first so-called grammars. The idea, again born of the theory of resemblances (sympathy/antipathy, convenience, analogy, emulation), was that every letter had particular qualities, and that the combinations of those qualities were what produced syllables, words, etc.

Sound mundane? This is not like our modern linguistics, where certain combinations of sounds (labials, fricatives, plosives, and others) work and others don't (try pronouncing "sfthick"). No, the letters had "sympathies" and "antipathies" all their own, and that's what drew them together or forced them apart.

Can you picture a story based on this idea? Imagine books acrawl with moving letters, seeking one another out, or staking their territory against enemy letters.

And then extend the idea. If the letters have sympathies and antipathies with other letters, and entire words have like relations with other words, and everything is bound by a system of semblances which carries each new like or dislike outward... You follow me?

Some words don't like you, and they're just waiting for the perfect time. Mnyahahahahaaa!

Come to think of it, that reminds me of a story in Leviathan Three. Jeffrey Ford's "The Weight of Words," I think (I don't have my copy here). The driving concept for the story is that certain word combinations, omissions, and so on, properly arranged, have powers of persuasion beyond the merely rhetorical. Great story, and one which could easily have found believers among a sixteenth-century audience, I think.
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Kathy S.
Posted on Monday, September 27, 2004 - 04:35 pm:   

Neal --
Cool thread. I think just about every early biological text contains all sorts of lovely images. And even later ones -- I believe it was Lamarck (I may be wrong) who organized animal life according to human life stages. I remember that spiders were likened to two-year-old infants, because they were capable of feeling annoyed. man, now I have to go and dig up that text. It was a treasure chest of wonderful imagery (like cranky spiders.)
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Monday, September 27, 2004 - 05:44 pm:   

Kathy, thanks for stopping by. Yes, Lamarck lived in the age of resemblances, as Foucault puts it. Before classification and nomenclature, things were grouped by their resemblance to other things, spreading out into a sprawling network of similitudes. I love the possibilities. For SF: what must alien cultures think, if they never made that leap from similitude to representation? For alternate history: what would the world be like if we never abandoned the expanding webs of similitude? For heroic fantasy: how might magic work if predicated on the beliefs of such cultures (Barbara Hambly dips into this in Master of the Five Magics). For modern fantasy: well, the lid's off. Neat stuff.

It's almost impossible these days to get into the heads of those old writers, or to figure out what someone's view of the world might have been. Some of their thought is still with us today (such as a faith in compassion or sympathy, or the description of a bat's wings as bearing resemblances to human hands), but almost none of our own scientific thought was present in their lives. They hadn't a clue about Bacon's scientific method, for instance.

Glad you like the thread, and thanks for bringing up Lamarck.
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Kathy S.
Posted on Monday, September 27, 2004 - 06:01 pm:   

You got me thinking of poor little liverworts that just about went extinct. There's something very appealing about the idea that the cure should resemble the organ being treated. It is indeed a good idea for spec fic -- a world that actually works this way.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Tuesday, September 28, 2004 - 08:09 am:   

You got it. People used to think that aconite and the human eye shared a natural sympathy, which did not mean the same thing as "aconite is good for problems with your eyes." It was a more fundamental, basic attachment--an attachment of sympathies; aconite was sympathetic to the human eye. Weird, huh?

Or this from Robinet's Philosophical Considerations on the Natural Gradations of Forms of Life (1768):
It is only, perhaps, by dint of producing monstrous beings that nature succeeds in producing beings of greater regularity and with a more symmetrical structure.

So we need monsters to keep ourselves from being monstrous. I like it.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Tuesday, September 28, 2004 - 04:43 pm:   

Just a thought: Dyslexia can be explained quite simply by the fact that some people are found to be odious by most words, while most of us only have occasional trouble reading, because only certain words have trouble tolerating us.

In a similar vein, libraries are organized in particular ways not because of human agency, but because it was revealed long ago that texts, being agglomerations of words and their letters, have likes and dislikes. The recent phenomenon of massive disappearances from library shelves of key texts indicates not carelessness or ineptitude on the part of the librarian and his/her assistant, nor theft on the part of the student or library patron, but rather the outcome of book-on-book violence brought on by the recent shift from Dewey Decimal to Library of Congress ordering.

Ask yourself this: If your were a book about William Dean Howells's editorial career, would YOU want to sit on a shelf next to a vapid volume about Henry James's sexuality? No, I didn't think so.

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