The Myriad Things on Hiatus — but still blogging elsewhere

The Myriad Things on Hiatus — but still blogging elsewhere

For various reasons — mainly my current workload — I’ve decided to put The Myriad Things on hiatus. I’ve got so many writing projects on the go that I haven’t really had the time to give sufficient attention to this blog. I’ve also had a curiously niggling uncertainty about what this blog is about. So I’ve decided to keep blogging over on willbuckingham.com/blog, where I’ll just be continuing to talk about anything that interests me (the “about” question, and the question of coherence, are not so pressing over there, as it’s just my personal site), and at least temporarily to cease operations over here. I’ve archived all previous content from the Myriad Things over there as well.

The thing about blogs is they need a certain amount of momentum to maintain, and I was finding that I was having to post the same or similar content to two different sites – so in the end I decided that if I’m going to find any time to write at all, I should focus my energies a bit more. I will be keeping the domain here at The Myriad Things, as I may think about other ways that I can put it to good use. It may be that in some months’ time things change (they usually do), and I find a way to refashion what I’m doing over here. But this will probably be the last post for a while.

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Uncertainty, Divination and the Book of Changes

Uncertainty, Divination and the Book of Changes

I’m very pleased to say that Aeon Magazine have just published a piece I’ve written on the Yijing / I Ching / 易經, the Chinese Book of Changes, and the cultivation of uncertainty. Here’s a quote.

More recently, I have started to ask a different set of questions about the I Ching. I am no longer so worried about what the book means, about what wisdom, if any, it imparts. Instead, I have started to content myself with asking about what it does. In fact, I have come to suspect that perhaps the book has no wisdom to impart, that perhaps it means nothing whatsoever, and it might be in this that it is possible to find the secret of its power.

The link to the full article is here.

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Sanmao (三毛) on Not Writing

Sanmao (三毛) on Not Writing

Next week I’m going on a short holiday, and taking a break from the large quantities writing I’ve been doing of late (various articles and book chapters in the works).

So it is timely that I came across the following little quote today from Taiwanese writer Sanmao (三毛) in her wonderful travelogue and memoir, “Stories of the Sahara” (撒哈拉的故事), a quote that I thought worth sharing.

 

 

 

Writing is important. But sometimes putting down the pen and not writing is actually more important.

 

寫,是重要,而有時擱筆不寫,卻是更重要。

 

So I’m looking forward to a week of not writing, somewhere in a yurt down in East Anglia. More when I get back!

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Lucretius, Liu Xie 劉勰, and Literature

Lucretius, Liu Xie 劉勰, and Literature

Those visitors who are interested in comparative approaches to creativity may be interested in the paper that I have just had published over in the excellent Taiwanese journal, NTU studies in Language and Literature. The paper is about different models of literary creativity in Liu Xie’s early 6th century Wenxin Diaolong (文心雕龍) and Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. I’ve long been frustrated by the odd claim—made by a surprising number of scholars—that there is something inherently uncreative about Chinese approaches to literature, and so this is to some extent an answer to this, as well as an attempt to set out a more modest and universal notion of what it might mean to create literary works.

You can find a link to the article here: Participation, Pattern and Change: Literary Creation in Liu Xie and Lucretius

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Thoughts on Illness

Thoughts on Illness

Some time back in November last year, things were looking pretty exciting. I had been offered a university job in Hong Kong, my partner Elee was well on the way to finishing her PhD, and we were looking forward to a change of scenery. Having been teaching in higher education in the UK for about six years or so, I was feeling in need of a change; and being in Hong Kong seemed like a good way to move forward my growing research interests in China.

But then things took an unexpected turn. Simmering away in the background for the couple of weeks during which I was going through the interview process for the job (it was a Skype interview, so it was—as a friend pointed out—theoretically the only job interview that I could have done without wearing any trousers), I was also going back and forth to the hospital with Elee as she went through various tests. Then two things happened within twenty-four hours of each other: I was offered the job, and half a day later, Elee was given the diagnosis of breast cancer.

So I turned down the job, Elee put her PhD on hold, and very quickly we found that our lives were overtaken by medical matters: appointments and consultations, chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy. It turned into a very long winter, followed by a very long spring. And I won’t go into details about the whole course of treatment and so on, except to say that we were lucky, in many ways. Friends and colleagues were extraordinarily kind and supportive. The cancer responded very well to treatment. The standard of care in the hospitals in Leicester was breathtakingly good. Elee weathered the horrible business of cancer treatment with remarkably practical and good-humoured stoicism. And one of the things that really gave me the strength to go on, as I stumbled into my classes at the university bleary-eyed with sleeplessness and worry, wondering how I’d struggle through another day, was the energy, good-will, thoughtfulness and commitment of my students. I have never felt more privileged and grateful to be teaching than I have over the past year.

Generally speaking, I’m not a particularly confessional blogger, and so many times over the past months, I have wondered whether I should write about what has been happening on this blog, but have pulled back from doing so. I simply haven’t wanted to end up giving a running public commentary upon all of this. And if I’ve blogged less than I would like on other topics, it is because my energies have been involved elsewhere.

But now that Elee’s treatment is more or less complete, and has gone well—the prognosis is good and now we’re beginning to turn our attention to other things— I thought I’d say something about what has been going on. Elee’s PhD is back on track. I’m plunging back into my Chinese studies, starting with an intensive course in advanced Chinese at LSE in London over the next two weeks. And although both of us, in different ways, are battered and bruised, we’re regaining some sense of ongoing life.

On thing that I have been thinking about over the past few months, in the light of all this, is illness. I recall one conversation with a friend earlier in the year, around the time that we were beginning to talk about prognoses and other matters, when we were coming to terms with the fact that there was a possibility (much smaller than we feared, it has turned out) that the cancer could turn out to be fatal. It was horrible, I said to my friend. We were weathering the storm, but it was horrible. Ah, my friend said, you should remain positive. Maybe, I said, but it was still horrible. You can’t think like that, my friend said. Why not? I asked. Because, she said, you have to remain positive. And although this was all very kindly meant, I couldn’t help wondering then why I had to remain positive, for whose sake, and what it meant to remain positive. I was worried by the speed with which my friend wanted to move away from the thought “it is horrible” (it is—I do not recommend cancer to anyone) to another, happier thought. And I was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s wonderful book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.

Ehrenreich, who herself went through treatment for breast cancer, noted that after the diagnosis, “The first thing I discovered… is that not everyone views the disease with horror and dread. Instead, the appropriate attitude is upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive.” In this, what Ehrenreich calls the “The Bright Side of Cancer”, cancer (as with disease more generally)* is considered to be somehow redemptive, offering the “intangible benefits of spiritual upward mobility”. And positivity is necessary not only because it makes life more liveable, but also because it is believed to have some effect on the cancer itself, despite the fact—as Ehrenreich has pointed out—that there is no decent scientific evidence for this.

But then, as now, I’d like to hold out for the notion of illness as illness, rather than seeing illness as some kind of move in the perpetually self-overcoming game of personal development. To see  difficulties as moral teachings provided by the universe, or as moral challenges to which we must rise, is  to refuse to see these difficulties as what they are. It is a way of pushing difficulty away because it is, well, difficult. It is a melancholy fact that, rather than enriching life, illness very often diminishes it. And the refusal to recognise this is a refusal to really recognise the effects of illness on human life. A phrase has been rattling round my head over the past few months: illness is life’s diminishment. And it is not unreasonable to say that life for both of us has been, of late, significantly diminished. How could it not be?

Now that we are coming out the other side of this, I genuinely don’t feel that I have any great wisdom to impart as a result of these difficulties. I resist the notion that this has been some kind of improving experience. Cancer is not night-school. Mostly, I’m just glad that it is more or less over and grateful to friends and colleagues and my wonderful students and the help and support we have both received. As the shadow of illness recedes, we are beginning to regain some broader sense of life and its possibilities. I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to what comes next. Who knows? Now that we are no longer so caught up in all of this, I might even find myself writing more frequently on this blog…

*Though perhaps not all disease: for reasons that are perhaps too complex to go into here, there are few who argue that Gonorrhea, for example, is redemptive or that it makes you a better, kinder person…

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Up North With the Donkey-Rat

Up North With the Donkey-Rat

Just a quick post this, as I have a train to catch up to Newcastle, and—before that—a lost mobile phone to track down (that’s the trouble with mobile phones: they move around, so it’s hard to remember where you last put them… I like my phones affixed to the wall). I’m heading up to Newcastle for a conference on Working Wonder, back in the Fine Art department where I did my undergraduate degree. I’m looking forward to being in what is probably my favourite city.

I’m doing a paper on the diviner Guo Pu (郭璞), and an interesting tale that I first came across in Writing Against the State: Political Rhetorics in Third and Fourth Century China by Dominik Declercq. The tale concerns Guo Pu’s encounter with a strange creature. The account Declercq draws from comes from the seventh century compilation, the Jin Shu 晉書, but this is drawn in turn from the fourth century Sou Shen Ji 搜神記 (see here). Here’s the passage I’m talking about.

 

From the Sou Shen Ji: 郭璞過江,宣城太守殷佑,引為參軍。時有一物,大如水牛,灰色,卑腳,腳類象,胸前尾上皆白,大力而遲鈍,來到城下,眾咸怪焉。佑使人伏而取之。令璞作卦,遇遯之蠱,名曰“驢鼠。”卜适了,伏者以戟刺,深尺余。郡紀綱上祠請殺之。巫云:“廟神不悅。此是郱亭驢山君使。至荊山,暫來過我,不須觸之。” 遂去,不复見。

Guo Pu crossed the river, and the head of Xuancheng prefecture, Yin You, made him a military adviser. Once there was a creature, large like a water-buffalo, grey in colour, with stumpy legs, its legs like an elephant, its chest at the front and the tip of its tail white, very strong and dull-witted; and it came up to the city walls. The crowd were all astonished. Yin You got his men to stalk and trap it. Then he ordered Guo Pu to perform a divination. He got the hexagrams “dùn” [䷠ 遯/遁 “fleeing - retreat”] changing to “gǔ” [䷑ / 蠱 “work on what has been spoiled”]. Having performed appropriate divinations, he said its name was “Donkey Rat.” One of the men who had stalked it pricked it with a spear, a foot deep. A prefectural official went to the temple to ask if it should be killed. The oracle said, ‘The temple god is displeased. This [creature] was sent from Lake Gongting by the Lord of Donkey Mountain [Mount Lu, 廬山 Lushan, with Lü / 驢 here substituted for Lu 廬]. It came as far as Jingshang, and recently passed by me here. You must not touch it”.

 

What my paper is about is the question of where the wonder is in this tale. I’m interested in the Western imperative to wonder—which appears everywhere from Brian Cox’s mop-headed stargazing, to the homilies of the religious on BBC radio’s Thought for the Day, to the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the artists. Roughly, my argument (and it is rough) is that wonder is a curious kind of notion that has an ethical force in the West, and that is in need of further examination, and that what we take for wonder may be rooted in a particular relationship to the unknown (or the unknowable) that is not as universal as we imagine. Along the way I’m going to be talking about great chains of being, flat ontology, and—of course—the 萬物 or ten thousand things. All in fifteen minutes. Well, I can but try…

The main reason I’m saying any of this, however, is that it is an excuse to show you the following picture I made of a donkey-rat, a piece of photoshopping of which I am inordinately proud. If you see one of these wandering around your way, do let me know. I’d love to meet one…

 

A Donkey-Rat

A Donkey-Rat in its natural habitat.

 

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Brief Thoughts on Creativity

Brief Thoughts on Creativity

Lately, I’ve been thinking about creativity. I’ve been thinking about what it means to bring new ideas, thoughts and stories into being. And, in particular, I’ve been thinking about fairy dust.

Part of the reason for all this is that I’ve been hard at work over the last few weeks writing a paper which is due to be published later this month in National Taiwan University Studies in Language and Literature. The paper is called “Participation, Pattern and Change” and is about what I am calling participative creativity. The main idea behind the paper is that whilst creativity is still frequently seen as the intervention of something unworldly into the world—either a god, or a god-like infusion of genius into the mundane, or some kind of fairy dust—when it comes down to this, this is a pretty bad model for how we go about writing stories, composing music, painting pictures, coming up with new thoughts and hypotheses, finding new solutions to problems. So the paper explores a ‘participative’ model of creativity, drawing on my current favourite text, Liu Xie’s sixth century Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (“The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons”) and on Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). My aim is to set out a model that can account for literary creativity whether in China or in the West, one that does not have recourse to fairy-dust notions of creation ex nihilo.

What is at stake here, is the question of what the conditions are that are  necessary for creativity. As a teacher of creative writing, sometimes I come across students who claim, curiously, that they are not ‘creative’; and when this happens, I wonder what it is that they think that they are missing. It is my suspicion that they are in the grip of unhelpful notions of what it means to create. There is a widespread and popular idea of creativity as something akin to fairy dust: intangible, a bit sparkly, not entirely of this world, and rather hard to procure. And this fairy-dust notion of creativity is, I think, what lies behind the brainless notion (a notion that is adhered to in the face of all evidence to the contrary) that creative writing cannot be taught. This is an idea that is so boringly widespread, and so clearly evidentially false, that it is hard to know why people still maintain it in newspaper column after newspaper column. What this particularly numbskull notion seems to boil down to is this: either you have fairy dust or you do not. And it’s not down to you, or down to whoever is teaching you, whether you have fairy dust: it is, ultimately, down to the fairies (and who knows what they are up to?).

I’ll post a link to the paper when it is published. But here I want to just mention a wonderful book by James Austin (who some visitors to this blog may know as the author of Zen and the Brain), called Chase, Chance and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty, which explores the role of chance in creativity, and which I think makes some interesting inroads into the question of what it is to teach creativity. Our relationship with chance, Austin points out, is not just a kind of victimhood in the face of blind chance. In fact, Austin divides chance into four different categories. I’ll set them out below.

  1. Chance I: Blind luck, things just happen.
  2. Chance II: Chance that favours those in motion (or, as Austin writes, “the posture of creativity is forward-leaning”)
  3. Chance III: Chance that favours the prepared mind.
  4. Chance IV: Chance born out of a distinctive personal “flavour”, out of the fact that it is an idiosyncratic individual who is engaging with the world.

What’s interesting about this is that, from the point of view of teaching creative writing (or creativity in general), although Chance I is out of our hands, chance II, II and IV are not. Chance II is a matter of keeping moving, of going out and rambling over the hills, of seeing what you turn up in libraries (I tell my students, sometimes, that they should hand around in library shelves waiting to be mugged by passing books; Walter Benjamin talks about walking down the street and being mugged by passing ideas).  Chance III is a matter of accumulating a wide store of reading and of experience on which to draw (something that Liu Xie, in particular, insists upon). Finally, Chance IV is a matter of cultivating idiosyncratic interests and obsessions, because out of these strange juxtapositions, interesting things can arise. And all of this can boil down into really quite practical advice. Keep moving and keep exploring the world. Keep accumulating experience and reading. Follow those things that matter to you, and cherish your idiosyncratic interests. It is this, ultimately, that makes creativity participative, because it is about getting involved in the stuff of the world, rather than pulling down something unworldly from a mythical location outside the world.

What it comes down to is this. I don’t believe (or I don’t think I believe) that there is such a thing as an inherently uncreative person; but I do believe that there are more or less creative practices or even forms of life. And these can be taught.

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