Taking the Rough with the Smooth

Rough                      -                    Smooth
Undefined                -                    Defined
Chaos                        -                   Logos
Dionysus                  -                    Apollo
Unsure                     -                     Sure
Liquid                       -                    Solid
Change                     -                    Permanence
Unknown                 -                    Known
Probability               -                    Certainty
Approximate            -                    Exact
Plurality                   -                    Unity
Decentrate                -                    Concentrate
Complex                  -                    Simple
Irregular                   -                    Regular
Impure                      -                    Pure
Heterogenous           -                    Homogenous
Immanent                 -                    Transcendent
Imperfect                  -                    Perfect
Earth                        -                    Heavens
Matter                       -                    Pattern
Mother                      -                    Father
Man                          -                    God

The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

[Wallace Stevens]
'The Poems of Our Climate'

The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.


The individual may strive after perfection [...] but must suffer from the opposite of his intentions for the sake of his completeness.

[C. G. Jung]
Aion, CW 9ii, par 123

Dr Von Franz: That is where we differ.

You think God has published general rules which He keeps Himself, and we think He is a living spirit appearing in man's psyche who can always create something new.

Remark: Within the framework of what He has already published.

Dr Von Franz: To a theologian God is bound to His own books and is incapable of further publications. That is where we lock horns.

[Marie-Louise von Franz]
Alchemy, p. 142

We must have the courage to live relatively, provisionally, without foundations. Or rather, we must have the candour to confess that this is how we live anyway, allowing our beliefs to catch up with our practices.

Fundamentalism is a textual affair. It is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of words, seeing God as the final guarantor of meaning.

Literalness of interpretation is of its essence. It means adhering strictly to the script. It is a fear of the unscripted, improvised or indeterminate, as well as a horror of excess and ambiguity.

Fundamentalists do not see that the phrase 'sacred text' is self-contradictory - that no text can be sacred because every piece of writing is profaned by a plurality of meanings. Writing just means meaning which can be handled by anyone, anywhere.

Yet if there is no clarity, if no meaning is free from metaphor and ambiguity, how are we to construct a solid enough basis for our lives in a world too swift and slippery for us to find a foothold?

This is not an anxiety to be scoffed at. There is nothing quaint or red-neck about searching for some terra firma in a world in which men and women are asked to reinvent themselves overnight, in which pensions are abruptly wiped out by corporate greed and deceit, or in which whole ways of life are tossed casually on the scrapheap.

Fundamentalism is a diseased version of this desire. It is a neurotic hunt for solid foundations to our existence, an inability to accept that human life is a matter not of treading on thin air, but of roughness.

The fundamentalist is adrift on the rough ground of social life, nostalgic for the pure ice of absolute certainty where you can think but not walk. He is really a more pathological version of the conservative - for the conservative, too, suspects that if there are not watertight rules and exact limits then there can only be chaos.

The problem for the conservative or fundamentalist is that as soon as you have said 'law' or 'rule', a certain chaos is not kept at bay but actually evoked. Applying a rule is a creative, open-ended affair, more like figuring out the instructions for building the Taj Mahal out of Lego then obeying a traffic signal.

As for law, nothing illustrates its slipperiness more than Portia's legalistic sophistry in The Merchant of Venice [...] Portia gets the doomed Antonio off by pointing out to the court that Shylock's bond for securing a pound of his flesh makes no mention of taking any of his blood along with it.

No actual court, however, would admit such a fatuous argument. No piece of writing can spell out all of its conceivable implications. You might as well claim that Shylock's bond makes no reference to the use of a knife either, or to whether Shylock's hair should be tied back in a rather fetching pony-tail at the moment of incision.

Portia's reading of the bond is false because too faithful: it is a fundamentalist reading, sticking pedantically to the letter of the text and thus flagrantly falsifying its meaning.

To be exact interpretation must be creative. It must draw upon tacit understandings of how life and language work, practical know-how which can never be precisely formulated, which is just what Portia refuses to do. If we want to be as clear as possible, a certain roughness is unavoidable.

[Terry Eagleton]
After Theory, p.198, 202-6

Wabi-sabi  represents Japanese aesthetics and a Japanese world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. 

The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete".

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

For Richard Powell, "[w]abi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." Buddhist author Taro Gold describes wabi-sabi as "the wisdom and beauty of imperfection."

Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object.  

Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

In art books, it is typically defined as "flawed beauty."


Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales.

It is not good either to forget the questions philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can do for those who study it.

[Bertrand Russell]
History of Western Philosophy ('Introduction'), p.2

We do not, any of us, achieve rigor. 

 In writing, sometimes, we can take time to check the looseness of thought; but in speaking, hardly ever [...]

I know that I personally, when speaking in conversation and even in lecturing, depart from the epistemology outlined in the previous chapter; and indeed the chapter itself was hard to write without continual lapses into other ways of thinking and may still contain such lapses.

I know that I would not like to be held scientifically responsible for many loose spoken sentences that I have uttered in conversation with scientific colleagues. But I also know that if another person had the task of studying my ways of thought, he would do well to study my loosely spoken words rather than my writing.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry'), p.230

To a much greater extent than men, women can be said to form their abstractions from personal experience. Interestingly enough, the same can be said of the Ladakhis and many traditional and non-Western cultures.

To understand the complexities of the natural world, theory must be grounded in experience.  

Experiential learning is based in messy reality, with all its paradox and untidiness, its ever-changing pattern, its refusal to conform to our expectations.  

As such, it inevitably leads to humility.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.190

Often I never really heard what she said - I’d be staring at her legs. They were very comforting.

Because sometimes there’d be little bruises or marks around her ankles from the elastic in her socks. That’s how come I knew she was real.

['Danny Embling']
Dialogue from the film 'Flirting'

If we think of idealists in terms of Jung's speculations about the shadow, it's clear the idealist is a man or woman who does not want to go down. They plan to go to the grave with the shadow still repressed.

The idealists are shadow-haters.

By exclusive interest in "the truth," they exile the shadow, or keep it exiled ...

[Robert Bly]
A Little Book on the Human Shadow, p. 74

Repeatedly a woman may tell me how hurt she is by other people's boorish responses. Her battered sensibilities withdraw from the constant onslaught.

What she does not realise is that she is trying to make everything around her sacred and that other people may not understand that they are treading on her sacred space or moving in her sacred time, and so they are unwittingly desecrating her sacred temple.

[Marion Woodman]
Addiction to Perfection, p. 31

The core problem – as Goethe sees it – is this: Romantic love hopes to ‘freeze’ a beautiful moment. 

It’s a summer’s evening, after dinner, Werther is walking in the woods with his beloved. He wants it to be always like this: so he feel they should get married, have a house together, have children. Though, in reality, marriage will be nothing at all like the lovely June night.  

There’ll be exhaustion, bills to pay, squabbles and a sense of confinement. By comparison with the extreme hopes of Romanticism, real love is always necessarily a terrible disappointment. 

That’s why Goethe gradually moved away from Romanticism towards an ideology of love he termed Classicism – marked by a degree of pessimism, an acceptance of the troubles that afflict all couples over time, and of the need to abandon some of the heady hopes of the early days for the sake of tranquillity and administrative competence. 

Goethe was a critic of Romantic ideology not because he was cold hearted or lacking in imagination but because he so deeply and intimately understood its attractions – and therefore its dangers.

'Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Cathy: Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change and you and I never change.

Heathcliff: The moors and I will never change. Don't you, Cathy.

Cathy: I can't. I can't. No matter what I ever do or say, Heathcliff, this is me now; standing on this hill with you. This is me forever.

[Emily Brontë]
Wuthering Heights

We are doomed to formulate conceptual structures that are much simpler than the complex phenomena they are attempting to account for.

These simple conceptual structures shield us, pragmatically, from real-world complexity, but also fail, frequently, as some aspect of what we did not take into consideration makes itself manifest.

The failure of our concepts dysregulates our emotions and generates anxiety, necessarily, as the unconstrained world is challenging and dangerous. Such dysregulation can turn us into rigid, totalitarian dogmatists, as we strive to maintain the structure of our no longer valid beliefs.

Alternatively, we can face the underlying complexity of experience, voluntarily, gather new information, and recast and reconfigure the structures that underly our habitable worlds.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
‘Complexity Management Theory: Motivation for Ideological Rigidity and Social Conflict’, in Cortex, December 2002, p. 429

What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philoso­pher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defined “forms,” whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like Utopias […], even nationalities.

When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures.

Platonicity is what makes us think that we understand more than we actually do. 

But this does not happen everywhere. I am not saying that Platonic forms don’t exist. Models and constructions, these intellectual maps of reality, are not always wrong; they are wrong only in some specific applications.

The difficulty is that a) you do not know beforehand (only after the fact) where the map will be wrong, and b) the mistakes can lead to severe consequences. These models are like potentially helpful medicines that carry random but very severe side effects.

The Platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, p. xxix, xxx


If the cones are not screwed on far enough, the bearings will have "play" [unwanted movement]: the wheel will be able to shake back and forth on its bearings. This is an unpleasant sensation, and may cause control problems.

'Cone adjustment'

The more freedom, or play, in [the] chain, the more room for a reader to generate his or her own meanings from the text. This term 'play' was a key one for Barthes - he used it to refer to a flexibility or movement in the text, that allowed it to be interpreted in different ways.

He also used it to refer to the act of reading and interpretation, which was playful, like a game; and also creative, active, and virtuosic, like a musician playing a score.

'Animating poststructuralism'

[...] the real reason for discouraging dogma in the criticism of the arts isn’t distaste for elitism but the fact that it puts a stop to conversation. 

Take, for instance, F. R. Leavis’s dismissal of Sterne in his study of the English novel, The Great Tradition, where he refers to Sterne’s ‘irresponsible (and nasty) trifling’. Beyond that phrase, in which even the word ‘and’ sounds dogmatic, the case against Sterne is not made.

What is offensive in the phrase is that Leavis refuses even to discuss the matter: he refuses, by more than implication, the company of anyone who would want to.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 56-7

[...] the notion 'exactly six millimetres', or exactly any other measurement, is not something that can ever be met with in experience. It is a metaphysical notion.

But from this it does not follow that mankind cannot make invaluable and prodigious use of measurement; nor that accuracy in measurement, because it is absolutely unattainable, does not matter; nor that we cannot make progress through ever greater and greater degrees of accuracy.

Popper's notion of 'the truth' is very like this: our concern in the pursuit of knowledge is to get closer and closer to the truth, and we may even know that we have made an advance, but we can never know if we have reached our goal.

[Bryan Magee]
Popper, p. 27-8

The shapes of classical geometry are lines and planes, circles and spheres, triangles and cones. They represent a powerful abstraction of reality, and they inspired a powerful philosophy of Platonic harmony.

Euclid made of them a geometry that lasted two millennia, the only geometry still that most people ever learn. Artists found an ideal beauty in them. Ptolemaic astronomers built a theory of the universe out of them. But for understanding complexity, they turn out to be the wrong kind of abstraction.

Clouds are not spheres, Mandelbrot is fond of saying. Mountains are not cones. Lightning does not travel in a straight line. The new geometry mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous, not smooth. It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked, and broken up, the twisted, tangled and intertwined.

The understanding of nature's complexity awaited a suspicion that the complexity was not just random, not just accident. It required a faith that the interesting feature of a lightning bolt's path, for example, was not its direction, but rather the distribution of zigs and zags.

Mandelbrot's work made a claim about the world, and the claim was that such odd shapes carry meaning. The pits and tangles are more than blemishes distorting the classic shapes of Euclidian geometry. They are often the keys to the essence of a thing.

[James Gleick]
Chaos, p. 94

Over the past twenty-five hundred years of recorded ideas, only fools and Platonists have believed in engineered utopias […] the idea is not to correct mistakes and eliminate randomness from social and economic life through monetary policy, subsidies, and so on.

We cannot make economists more scientific; we cannot make humans more rational (whatever that means); we cannot make fads disappear.

The idea is simply to let human mistakes and miscalculations remain confined, and to prevent their spreading through the system, as Mother Nature does. Reducing volatility and ordinary randomness increases exposure to Black Swans - it creates an artificial quiet. 

My dream is to have a true Epistemocracy - that is, a society robust to expert errors, forecasting errors, and hubris, one that can be resistant to the incompetence of politicians, regulators, economists, central bankers, bankers, policy wonks, and epidemiologists.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 322

We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything… by suppressing randomness and volatility.

Just as spending a month in bed […] leads to muscle atrophy, complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions […] which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems.

Not only are we averse to stressors, and don't understand them, but we are committing crimes against life, the living, science, and wisdom, for the sake of eliminating volatility and variation.

This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 5, 61

[Touristification] is my term for an aspect of modern life that treats humans as washing machines, with simplified mechanical responses - and a detailed user’s manual.

It is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness from things, trying to make matters highly predictable in their smaller details. All that for the sake of comfort, convenience, and efficiency.

What a tourist is in relation to an adventurer, or a flaneur, touristification is to life; it consists in converting activities, and not just travel, into the equivalent of a script like those followed by actors. We will see how touristification castrates systems and organisms that like uncertainty by sucking randomness out of them to the last drop - while providing them with the illusion of benefit.

But the worst touristification is the life we moderns have to lead in captivity, during our leisure hours: Friday night opera, scheduled parties, scheduled laughs. Again, golden jail.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 62-3

The beginning of wisdom, I believe, is our ability to accept an inherent messiness in our explanation of what's going on.

Nowhere is it written that human minds should be able to give a full accounting of creation in all dimensions and on all levels. Ludwig Wittgenstein had the idea that philosophy should be what he called "true enough." I think that's a great idea.

True enough is as true as can be gotten.

[Rupert Sheldrake]

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