The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent (Basketball) Knowledge

All my life, I have loved ordering my things.  My new Matchbox cars go in one line, and the ones I inherited from my older brothers go in another one, and the ones I found or stole from my friends go in a third.  The beer cans in my collection will be ordered in the shape of a pyramid ranged from most common at the bottom (ordered alphabetically by brand from left to right and bottom to top) to the most rare at the top (with an architecturally-required exemption for 7, 16, 24 and 40 oz cans, which get their own rows).

When I got to graduate school, a more experienced student advised me that success in our profession depended on the ability to make bibliographies. I’m not sure what he meant, but what I heard was: “order your book collection,” which was a snap for me because I’d already started…when I was seven and labeled Follow My Leader “Book # 1” in my own personal library.

At first glance, it’s not so mysterious—this drive to classify and order, especially not in the contexts of childhood and graduate school. For both of these situations involved for me much confusion and little sense of power and therefore, a deep feeling of vulnerability.  Of course I would order my beer cans when I couldn’t order my family or my own feelings! Of course I would create a bibliography to throw a net around the leaping beast of my own growing ignorance snarling and snapping at my heels!

The writer Jorge Luis Borges once made fun of me when he included in a story a Chinese Encyclopedia he made up: the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”  In its “distant pages,” Borges informs us “animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

His point, he claimed, was that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative.”  Sure. I get it. But that doesn’t really apply to mine.  Or, at least, there are more and less arbitrary and speculative classifications of the universe.  Aren’t there?  I mean, what does his psychotic example (made up after all) have to do with something so naturally reasonably as putting my underwear, undershirts, and socks in one drawer, my shorts and tee shirts in the next one, and my pants and long sleeve shirts in the next one?

Maybe, from a certain somewhat superficial point of view, I’m justified in my indignation. But Borges is working the depths.  The reason that all such taxonomies are “arbitrary and speculative” is a simple one:  “we do not know what the universe is.”  The rug is starting to slip.  Not only do we not know what it is, Borges shockingly continues, but “there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.”

Oh shit, I think to myself. I thought there was.  Or maybe, I always felt there was.  In fact, I’ve always harbored the feeling, described by Borges’ compatriot, the writer Julio Cortázar, that the universe must “contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”  What is that if not a description of a “universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word”? Each thing connected to every other thing.

I didn’t encounter this quotation until I was grown, but it echoed and articulated an inchoate feeling I’d had since childhood.  Maybe I couldn’t always discern the connections, but I could console myself with the knowledge that they were there nonetheless, and that if I could discern some then perhaps with enough patience and effort I could discern them all.  And trailing in on the coattails of these consolations came the deeper elemental indispensable comfort that if this is how things are, then, regardless of what I know, I was myself connected.  Regardless of how I felt, I was not alone.

But then there is Borges, who I suspect is right, and this renders my organizing impulse—my taxonomania—not only futile, but absurdly delusional.  If there is no universe (and—to cover all the bases—we don’t know what it is), then what is the point of any of it? Why not just leave my Matchbox cars in a heap on the carpet, a miniature model of some grisly aerial shot on the 11 o’clock news? Why even bother collecting beer cans or books? In fact, why bother reading books at all, let alone going to graduate school? In fact, what is the fucking point of doing anything at all if there is no universe, let alone an orderly one, let alone one whose order I can discover and mimic with my classificatory schemas?

Fortunately, Borges himself helps me stop this runaway train of existential despair.  For he goes on to say that “the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot, however, stop us from planning human schemes, even though it is clear that they are provisional.”  And Cortázar adds an encouraging word: “the poet if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”

He seems to be saying that the creative—making—activity of the poet really resides in a way of seeing; a way of imaginatively reconfiguring the relations among existing things to make new patterns (like a constellation).  Which I suppose is what Borges himself was getting at when emphasized the importance of “planning human schemes”; indeed, what Borges himself was doing when he invented the extravagant human scheme of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  None other than James Naismith himself was under the influence of such a view when he responded to his teacher’s assertion that “All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing” by recombining elements of familiar games to invent basketball.

So this helps me see that there is more to my drive to organize and classify than merely the  Quixotic impulse to know and control the universe. I can see that in doing so I’m playing, exercising my imaginative and cognitive faculties in recurrent experimentation; I can see that I’m forging connections, maybe not so different from the ones I try to forge with my body and the ball on the basketball court; I can see that I’m making new and at least personally satisfying, possibly beautiful, patterns out of what the existing world has dealt me.

And so it goes: I have loved the discovery of sets in math, Ven diagrams, sentence diagrams, the great book on the shelf next to the one I was looking for in the stacks at the library, the moment when two friends who don’t know each other meet and hit it off, the perfect combination of passes and cuts and passes leading to an easy score in pick up ball, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, kaleidoscopes, and, come to think of it, constellations.


Which brings me back to books, to books about basketball, to my favorite twenty books about basketball. Here they are, in the order, top to bottom, in which I originally presented them.

Screenshot 2015-07-17 13.24.32

There’s so much more to be done with these “solitary stars” than force them into four, hierarchically ordered, groups of five. Sure, it flowed pretty naturally from the subject matter since this way of ranking things, like basketball players (which—oh—are not things), is familiar to me and my readers. And maybe it was even kind of novel or catchy.  But like other conventions of mainstream sports there’s at least as much that obscures (if not offends) as illuminates in such schemas, especially since, as I realized by the end, I didn’t really believe in mine: they were just twenty really important books about basketball and any schema I might plan for deciding which were more important were, well, as Borges might say, “arbitrary and speculative.”

Considering that, it could be fun or instructive or beautiful to connect these books differently. I’d hoped to build something like a dynamic “recommendation engine” (partly because of  that name), but alas such a device is beyond my capabilities. Instead, I resign myself to static pictorial representations of my taxonomies.  How might that look?  I could, for example draw a simple path connecting only those books that either consider basketball philosophically or consider the philosophical aspects of basketball.

Philosophy Path


Or a different path connecting those that portray failure (or tragedy):


We could combine these two paths together (philosophy now in red, failure in yellow).

failure plus philosophy

Already from this simple, arbitrary and speculative exercise you might, as a prospective reader with an interest in basketball, philosophy, and failure or tragedy, deduce that either FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Basketball History or Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolf would be promising places to begin your reading excursion.  And you’d be right. It really works.

Now, you could do the same with paths of your own liking. Interested in money? I’d probably draw paths through LaFeber’s Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, Murry Nelson’s The National Basketball League, Lane’s Under the Boards, Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story, Cohen’s The Game They Played, Leonard’s After Artest, and Andrews, Michael Jordan, Inc.. Let’s add those to the last drawing:


So now, you might go to LaFeber, Cohen, Leonard and Nelson’s books for a combination of money and failure, and you might throw Foul! in to get your philosophical consideration of the intersection of basketball, money, and failure (or tragedy). In addition to valuably denaturalizing the hierarchical way in which I first presented these books (and which seems so reflexive a way of classifying in sports), these kinds of groupings are a narrowing, a filtering process that can be useful if you want to impart some direction and focus to your reading experience.

But of course, speaking for myself what I make and have made of these books depends heavily on other things I’ve read that are not included in these twenty books. That’s another way of saying that my very selection of these twenty books as well as the way in which choose to define the paths I use to connect them to one another is itself the result of still other lines connecting these books (or subsets of them) to other books I haven’t so far included here, only some of which, by the way, having anything explicit to do with basketball. Here’s what a partial representation of this might look like.


Remember these pathways just represent three, rather broad, categories of similarity: philosophy, failure, and money. And I’ve only added, more or less off the top of my head, fifteen books not on my original list of twenty top basketball books. At this point, the classification process still narrows by selecting just some of the the original set of twenty books, but it also expand by adding a few others to the reading list.  So you might now have a list that includes Kafka, Agassi, and Spinoza alongside, from the original list of my top twenty basketball books, Leonard, Nelson, LaFeber, Wolf, FreeDarko’s history, Melander, Frey, and Cohen.

But finally, books aren’t the only thing, not even when we’re reading.  In fact, books aren’t even the most important thing, even when we’re reading.  For we are always—like it or not and more or less consciously—drawing lines between the book we are reading and something else that is not the book we are reading, and not a book at all.  Obviously this is a probably infinitely complex network of conscious and unconscious associations anchored in words, sounds, memories, fantasies, world events past and present and imagined, films, paintings, photographs, songs, TV shows, affects, sensations, thoughts, ideas, experiences, instances, and other people.

We could start filling in those empty shelves on the bookcase above with scraps of paper on which I might write down some of these non-book entities.  Imagine how vast that network of informing anchor points would be, just for one person.  Now imagine red, green, and yellow lines extending from those anchor points through the books that are not the top twenty basketball books and then converging at the various books in the top twenty.  Now add pathways in new colors to represent things like humor, race, technique, scholars, authors named David, books that are blue, imaginary books, amateur basketball, the early history of the game, gender, the perspectives of players themselves.

Now we have something so vast that I can no longer draw it.

Maybe it would look like this, but moving and enormous.






It’s harder to imagine the books and the other nodes and the categories and associations that connect them.  And I know it’s no longer useful as a filter to provide direction to my reading.  But it does do something else for me. For one thing, I simply find the images beautiful.  I also find them a valuable visual reminder of the vast, complex network of life that springs to life every time your or I open a book.

This network may not be the universe, and so I may not find myself securely connected to every other point in the universe, as I might have obscurely desired as a child.  Indeed, there may not be, as Borges speculated, any universe at all. But this is okay because there is something else I’ve discovered in the process.  Borges’ “human schemes,” Cortázar’s “poet” drawing “lines connecting the solitary stars,” and my own less elegant attempts to convey networks of connection appear to me now as a kind of exercise or practice or maybe training.  But for what?

Sometimes, especially as I get older, especially as I work through the deaths of people that I have loved, I find myself wondering about the purpose of it all, which is to say, the meaning.  But maybe “life,” as Stephen Batchelor says, is “neither meaningful nor meaningless.  Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are,” he adds, “linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.” If he’s right, then what I’ve been doing and calling exercise or practice or training is also the performance itself; the performance of living purposefully, of actively creating a meaningful universe, aware that in doing so we may contribute to the efforts others are making to do the same.

It seems I’ve wandered too far from books, and collections of books, and reading lists, let alone from basketball, which is why I’m guessing most readers even bother with this blog. And I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  But I’m hoping that’s okay, hoping even that for some readers the pathways back to these things—to hoops and books and reading—suddenly gleam, illuminating like the lights in the aisle of a plane, taking us where we need to go. Or else, maybe you can help me find my way back. Or not, I remind myself, since it’s okay sometimes to wander, to not have it all figured out, and to get nowhere.


What I learned About Hoops and Invention from Julio Cortazar

“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”

– Werner Heisenberg[1]

            “The world,” Julio Cortázar once wrote, “is a badly resolved problem if it does not contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”[2]  The poet, he continued, “if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”  This little passage shoots my mind off in the direction of a half-dozen different solitary stars at one time:  the interconnectedness of all beings in Buddhism and in deep ecology and in the rhizome of French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the relation between looking at stars and reading and between reading and writing [Ù33]. The word “invents”.  I think I’ll go there.

            “She invents the constellation.”  Invent and its derivatives appear frequently in Julio’s works, at every stage of his career.  That was an early example, from around 1950.  Here he is again, over thirty years later, hoping of the chronicle of life on the road that he would write with his wife Carol Dunlop just before his death: “that our experience will have opened for you some doors too, and that in you germinates already the project of some parallel freeway of your own invention [Ù13, 16, 19, 66, 72].”[3]  Invention, throughout Julio’s writing, comes to mean the process by which we can make something new – a word, an experience, a world, a self – by rearranging the elements, and the relationships among them, that constitute a particular, received situation [Ù4].

            Think of a word as a situation made up of elements called letters that are configured in a given way according to certain rules.  Now how can you make something new of that word?  Consider the difference between a palindrome and anagram. “The problem with palindromes,” says Lozano, the protagonist of Cortázar’s late short story “Tara,” is that “you are left the way you started.”  A palindrome, which offers you a mirror image of a word, “has no strength because it doesn’t teach you anything new.”[4]  But anagrams are a different story.  The young girl from the story “The Distances” makes an anagram of her name – “Alina Reyes es la reina y  . . . ” – and notes in her diary that it is beautiful because it “opens a path.”  She’ll follow it until she’s invented a new self for her self.[5]  Anagrams make something new.  The inventor of an anagram takes the hard fast frozen relations between letters that make up the given word and softens and melts them until the letters can dance around experimentally before plopping back down in unexpected new relations of proximity and distance.

            Take one more example, just to get the basic idea.  “pages 78, 457, 3, 271, 688, 75, and 456 of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy have all that is needed for the writing of a hendecasyllable by Garcílaso.”[6]  That is to say that the poem by Garcílaso lies immanently within the particular, received situation of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy, just as “es la reina y . . .” lies immanently in “Alina Reyes.”  It takes an inventor, however, to discover (and etymologically “invention” refers to the process of discovery, of “coming upon”) the poem by rearranging the elements (in this case the pages of the dictionary, and the words on them) in a new way.  From these examples, you can see one of the fundamental aspects of invention: it always works immanently.  Nothing gets added from outside the given situation, and the original, given situation remains, now embedded, within the new one.

            This sense of invention makes Julio himself a star in a constellation that includes the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who can help direct that sense of invention to the heart of the world in which we live.  In a lecture written just before his death, Calvino noted that the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 100 – c. 55 B.C.) saw letters as “atoms in continual motion, creating the most diverse words and sounds by means of their permutations” so that “in the combinatoria of the alphabet” Lucretius “saw a model of the impalpable atomic structure of matter.”[7]  Lucretius – already influential upon such prominent and otherwise dissimilar cultural figures as the literary critic Harold Bloom and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze[8] – shines now all the more brightly in this constellation for he has of late become a kind of hero to scientists interested in the behavior of systems, such as living systems, that exist far from equilibrium.

            Nobel Prize winning physicist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers summarize the pertinent Lucretian view: “Sometimes, wrote Lucretius, at uncertain times and places, the eternal, universal fall of the atoms is disturbed by a very slight deviation – the ‘clinamen.’  The resulting vortex gives rise to the world, to all natural things.”  This Lucretian hypothesis of a generative swerve closely resembles current beliefs among theorists of living systems concerning the disturbance or “disorder” out of which living things arise: “If the vertical fall were not disturbed ‘without reason’ by the clinamen, which leads to encounters and associations between uniformly falling atoms, no nature could be created; all that would be reproduced would be the repetitive connection between equivalent causes and effects governed by the laws of fate (foedera fati).”[9]

            Thinkers like stars.  She invents the constellation.  Atoms like letters.  Atoms swerve out of barren, conventional flows into unpredictable encounters with each other.  From these kinds of encounters spring all that is new.  Letters like atoms.  Julio begins with letters too and knocks them just slightly out of line in order to produce new words.  “It is the ability of different organisms to exchange ‘genetic information’ with each other, the process the geneticist calls recombination, more popularly known as sex.”[10]  Or making love.  With atoms, like letters, like thinkers, everything depends on what you can make of them.

            Invention is the name that Julio gives to the process of creating something new by a rearrangement of the relations comprising something old.  Its versatile applicability to generative processes ranging from physics to biology to philosophy to literature partly explains the vital urgency with which Horacio Oliveira, at the beginning of Julio’s most famous novel Hopscotch, announces that in “an age in which we run toward deception through infallible equations and conformity machines,” “our possible truth must be invention” [“nuestra verdad posible tiene que ser invención.]”[11]

[1]Quoted in Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1996), p. 30.

[2]Julio Cortázar, Imagen de John Keats [1950-1951] (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996), p. 301, my translation.  Thus far, Latin Americanists have paid little attention to this posthumously published volume.  For a general introductory approach, however, see Steven Boldy, “Mise en perspective de Imagen de John Keats” in Cortázar de tous les côtés, Ed. Joaquín Manzi (Poitiers : UFR Langues Littératures Poitiers, Maison des sciences de l’homme et de la société, 2002), pp. 13-26.  Less surprisingly given that the work remains untranslated to English, it appears that Cortázar’s early work of scholarship on Keats has not entered the conversation of scholars who specialize in the work of that poet.

[3]Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, Los autonautas de la cosmopista [1983] (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996), p. 44, my translation. This text has received little critical attention, but see Jacques Leenhardt’s short review essay “Los autonautas de la cosmopista: Una vía de conocimiento,” Nuevo Texto Crítico 4.8 (1991): pp. 15-21 for a connection between traveling and knowing.  For other, more general and biographical, perspectives on this trip and the resulting book see Karine Berriot, Julio Cortázar: L’enchanteur (Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1988), pp. 257-290 and Jaime Alazraki, Hacia Cortázar: aproximaciones a su obra (Barcelona: Anthropos, 1994), pp. 281-297.  See also any of the four relatively new biographically oriented studies:  Eduardo Montes-Bradley, Cortázar sin barba (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2004), Claudio Eduardo Martyniuk, Imagen de Julio Cortázar (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2004), Enzo Maqueira, Cortázar, de cronopios y compromises (Buenos Aires: Longseller, 2002), and Miguel Herráez, Julio Cortázar: el otro lado de las cosas (Valencia: Institució Alfons el Magnanim, 2001.

[4]Julio Cortázar, “Tara,” Unreasonable Hours, Trans. Alberto Manguel (Toronto: Coach House, 1995), pp. 27-46.  In Spanish: “Satarsa,” Deshoras [1982] Cuentos Completos/2 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 443-453.

[5]Julio Cortázar, “The Distances,” Blow-Up and Other Stories, Trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Collier, 1968), pp. 15-24.  In Spanish: “Lejana (Diario de Alina Reyes),” Bestiario [1951] Cuentos Completos/1 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 119-125. See Vilma Arrieta-Vargas, “Presencia satánica en el río Danubio: Anagramas en ‘Lejana” de Julio Cortázar,” Letras 32 (2000): pp. 45-64.

[6]Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1966), Ch. 71, p. 379. In Spanish, Rayuela [1963] (Barcelona, Edhasa, 1984), Ch. 71, p. 435.

[7]Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Trans. Patrick Creagh (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 26 and pp. 44-45.

[8]In the early 1970s, Harold Bloom made Lucretius’ clinamen central to his theory of literary influence in the controversial work The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).  Before this, Gilles Deleuze argued in the late 1960s that “Lucretius established for a long time to come the implications of naturalism: the positivity of Nature; Naturalism as the philosophy of affirmation; pluralism linked with multiple affirmation; sensualism connected with the joy of the diverse; and the practical critique of all mystifications.”  The Logic of Sense, Trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 279.

[9]Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengears, Order out of Chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984), p. 141 and p. 303.  Prigogine, in turn, owes his reading of Lucretius to the attentive and inspired, but somewhat less accessible, account given by Michel Serres, for example, in “Lucretius: Science and Religion,” Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 98-124.

[10]Ernst Mayr, “The Evolution of Living Systems,” Evolution and the Diversity of Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 18.

[11]Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1966), Ch. 73, pp. 383-384, translation modified.  In Spanish, Rayuela [1963] (Barcelona: Edhasa, 1984), Ch. 71, pp. 438-439.

There Is Only One Creativity

600full-julio-cortazarI called this blog “between the lines” in order to evoke an intersection of two domains that have been dear to me  for most of my life: reading and basketball, though for most of my life they’ve been kept — at least consciously — separate from one another.  In the past couple of years, I’ve undertaken a conscious effort to integrate them and so, to integrate those dimensions of my nature and my desire.

So “Between the Lines’ is meant in part to suggest the lines of a basketball court and so to point to my efforts to deepen my understanding of what goes on between those lines.  But also, “Between the Lines” is also meant — as part of the phrase “Reading between the lines” — to suggest reading in general, and a way of reading deeply and practically that seeks to establish a relationship with writers and their writing as equipment for living.

“Between the Lines” means approaching both basketball and the written word with a close, critical attention to the concrete, formal details that comprise those things so as to open up pathways connecting each of those domains to the worlds beyond them (including the worlds within myself) and, from there, to practical insights that help me (and my students or those who read me) get along a little better in life. Read more