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Dore chaos
My friend Stuart sent me a letter:

You can learn a great deal from a springer spaniel. For instance:

Total order and total chaos are the same thing. Identical. Not a dime’s worth of difference. And neither is very helpful.

Think of it in terms of the Linnean metaphor. I’ll get to the spaniel in a moment.

At one end of the spectrum is chaos, a totality that is unordered, a cosmic goo. This is not the current chaos of the eponymous theory, which is merely a complexity beyond calculation, but rather the mythic chaos out of which the gods either create the cosmos, or arrive unannounced from it like Aphrodite from the sea. It has no edges, no smell, no shape, no parts, no color, no anything. Inchoate muddle. john martin chaos

So, in the beginning was the word: Or rather, our ability to organize this chaos through language. The universe exists without form and void. Then we begin the naming of parts to help us understand the welter.

And so, god created the heaven and earth, dividing the parts. And this division of parts is in essence what the Creation is all about. Ouroboros

Of course, the incessant need to divide and name is only a metaphor, but it will help us understand the conundrum of order in the universe, and how the ouroboros of Creation begins and ends at the same place, no matter which direction we go in: The law of entropy and the law of increasing order both have the same final destination.

When we look at the world around us, we immediately split what we see into two camps: That which is living and that which isn’t. It helps us understand the world we live in and we make many of our biggest decisions on this basis: Ethics, for instance. We have no problem splitting a rock in half with a hammer, but would feel rather evil doing the same to a dog.

But the living things fall into two large camps, also: Animal and vegetable (again, I’m simplifying. I haven’t forgotten the bacteria, but we can ignore them for the sake of the metaphor).

Some of us have a problem eating animals but not eating vegetables. So, again, our ethical world depends on how we sort out the chaos.

Let’s take the animals and subdivide them, the way Carl von Linne did, into classes, orders, families, phyla, genera and species.

Each level makes our divisions less inclusive, more discriminatory.

Let’s take the dog, for instance. It is classified as a chordate, which means it has a central nervous system stretched out into a spinal chord. This is different from, say, a starfish or a nematode. But there are many chordates, so, if we want to differentiate a dog from a shark, we have to look to its class. It is a mammal. That makes it distinct from birds and fish.

But there are lots of mammals, too. Some of them eat other animals; we call them carnivores. A dog is a carnivore.

Notice how each level of nomenclature narrows our definition down to a smaller and smaller group of initiates. When we had only living and non-living, there were only two groups; with each level, we add dozens, hundreds and then thousands of other groups disincluded in our catalog.

The order carnivora is one of many orders in the class of mammalia, which is one of many in the phylum chordata, which in turn is one of many in the kingdom animalia.

The order separates our subject, but lets us see in relief that it is just one constellation in the heavens populated by many other constellations.

The same poor pup is in the family canidae, which includes all the dog-like animals, from fox to coyote to jackal. Among them, it is in the genus Canis, and species lupus, which makes it brother with the wolf.

But our wolf is a friendly one, as long as you aren’t the postman. So, now we call it Canis lupus familiaris, or the family dog. And our particularization of the beast means we are conversely aware of all of creation — each in its own genus and species — that makes up the non-dog, and each of them is like the billions and billions of stars that make up the many constellations in the night sky.

Yet, this isn’t far enough. For the dog I’m thinking of isn’t just a dog, but a spaniel, which is a type of dog which isn’t a poodle and isn’t a terrier. It is a dog with “a long silky coat and drooping ears.”
Sylvie

Each time we subclassify, we are adding to the order we impose on existence, and each classification adds to the proliferation of categories just as it reduces the members inside each class.

So, there are also different kinds of spaniels. The dog I’m thinking of is a springer spaniel, which come in two forms, with a brown-and-white coat and a black-and-white coat.

My brother’s dog is a brown-coated springer spaniel named Sylvie. She is getting old now, and her backside — very much like humans — is getting broader.

And now, by classifying things to the level of the individual, we have as many categories as there are things in the universe, which is effectively the same as nothing being categorized: It is all primordial goo and might as well not be cataloged: Total order and total chaos are the same thing. QED.

Click image for larger view

Click image for larger view

Organization is vastly overrated.

I think.

But I can’t find the list of reasons I made. It’s on the back of a press-release envelope somewhere on my desk, under last month’s mail, or at least parts of the list are. The rest of the list is in the other room, on the crossword-puzzle page of the TV Guide, where I wrote it when I couldn’t find any other paper.

I’m not a particularly disorganized person. I arrive at most appointments promptly and I don’t lose my reading glasses more than twice a year, but I’m not an organization freak, either. Actually, I’ve spent the last several years trying to be less organized.

I have three calendars, each has different appointments listed in it. I just write notes down in whichever calendar is nearest, or at least visible. There is very little overlap and no system whatsoever. And what is more, after I write it on the calendar, I rarely ever read it again.

And my desk is perhaps messier than it used to be. My filing system is chronological: The older it is, the deeper in the pile. I don’t need a secretary, but perhaps an archaeologist would be nice.

The question of organization comes to mind because I am thinking about organizing my hard drive. I’ve got a computer desktop that mirrors my physical desktop: a midden of icons and folders; I don’t even remember what some of them are. But organizing? I’ve seen too many good people go over the edge, with that microchip gleam in their eye as they describe how they’ve put all their kitchen spices on a spreadsheet stored on a thumbdrive. In alphabetical order, with the date of purchase listed, to keep track of freshness, and botanical names attached, just because the computer program has a place to put them.

Of course, most of the spices lose their savor over the weeks required to program, format and enter all the information.

There’s a limit to what organization will do for you, but no limit to what it can do to you. Organization can be stultifying.

The important thing to remember is: Storing data isn’t learning.

For me, the central issue is that computers can deal only in categories of information. You open a file, play with it and refile it.

But there is a great deal in life that falls into the cracks. It doesn’t quite belong in one category, but doesn’t quite fit the other, either.

The ad hoc solution is to create a third file, named ”miscellaneous.” It quickly becomes the fullest file. It is a slush pile of stuff you don’t want to have to deal with, at least not yet.

The fact is that you can’t categorize a subject until you know something about it, so anything that fits the neat organization of a computer file is something you already understand.

If you want to continue learning — as opposed to memorizing — you need to pay more attention to those things you don’t understand. That’s where your mental and emotional growth will happen.

It reminds me of the sage words of the late artist Frederick Sommer, who once told me he only reads books that he doesn’t understand. ”Why would I read something I already understand?” he asked.

The computer model of brainpower is a simplified, dumbed-down version. It is astonishingly fast, but astonishingly stupid.

I will finally clean up my desktop because it will help me write. I could not do without my computer and the way it puts me online with some wonderful and weird stuff. But I am never buffaloed into thinking that the computer, no matter how much hard-drive memory or RAM megabytes it has, can begin to be creative, even on the most modest level.

To do so, it would first have to get sloppy, make mistakes, put things in wrong categories and then recognize, with a certain amount of joy, that there is a way the wrong category can be right, if you turn the information upside down and insert it sideways.

Creativity happens when two things rub up against each other. That is more likely to happen, in my experience, when the world isn’t too orderly and the things of the world are allowed to slosh around a little in their matrix.

So I have cultivated a little chaos in my life. It is the wellspring of all ideas and keeps life interesting.

Sure, too much chaos can be a bad thing, but I’d rather have too much than not enough.