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Humanist Archives: Feb. 16, 2020, 3:35 p.m. Humanist 33.606 - a fable leading to a question

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 606.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: 2020-02-16 00:25:19+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: a fable leading to a question

First the fable, taken from Michael Chabon's essay, "The Film Worlds of
Wes Anderson", New York Review of Books, 7 March 2013*:

> The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and
> surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that
> it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research
> “childhood.”
> There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into
> the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence,
> failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher
> learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the
> way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long
> as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the
> ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the
> researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost
> wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at
> which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people
> all their lives.
> Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness.
> The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker
> down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their
> goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking
> what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged,
> kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves.
> And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great
> overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece
> there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something
> might be done about putting the thing back together again.
> Two difficulties with this latter scheme at once present themselves.
> First of all, we have only ever glimpsed, as if through half-closed
> lids, the picture on the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box. Second, no
> matter how diligent we have been about picking up pieces along the
> way, we will never have anywhere near enough of them to finish the
> job. The most we can hope to accomplish with our handful of salvaged
> bits—the bittersweet harvest of observation and experience—is to
> build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious
> original, unbroken, half-remembered. Of course the worlds we build
> out of our store of fragments can be only approximations, partial and
> inaccurate. As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us,
> they must be accounted failures. And yet in that very failure, in
> their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate
> scale models, of this beautiful and broken world. We call these scale
> models “works of art.”

The question is perhaps obvious, but I will ask it anyhow: where do we
place our practice in this chronology, taking which of the alternative
responses to the brokenness, the impossibility of perfection that we (at
least those of us in the human sciences) discover?


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist (www.dhhumanist.org)

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Editor: Willard McCarty (King's College London, U.K.; Western Sydney University, Australia)
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