Out in the Corners

I’m not the only one to love this quote from Borges:

These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that 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.

In his inimitably kicky way, Borges is teaching us an important lesson here: namely that the categories into which we divide up the world shape our perception of it, and we should cast a skeptical eye on those categories, because they might not be as natural as they first appear. All well and good. But consider an alternative quote:

In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that live on land; (b) those that live in the water; (c) those that are amphibious; (d) those that fly.

Or maybe this:

…animals are divided into (a) those that can be raised for food; (b) those that can be trained to do farm work; (c) house pets; (d) untamable wild beasts.


…divided into (a) those that bite; (b) those that do not bite.

None of these are as entertaining as the original, because they divide up the world in a dull and conventional sort of way. But do they teach us any important lessons as well? More to the point, are they less likely to teach us lessons simply because they are less entertaining?

When someone phrases a question that way, you know what the answer will be.

Yes, the oddness of the Borges quote makes it profound, but it is only odd relative to the universe of not very odd quotes that can be constructed around it. Which means the lesson about being skeptical of our categories only makes sense against a background of situations in which our categories seem perfectly natural to us. Don’t think Borges has found you a way out of this conundrum just because he made you laugh.

The Borges quote is an example of something engineers, computer scientists, and their ilk call corner cases, situations in which the normal operation of a system breaks down. The spatial metaphor is a good one, because you can’t have a corner without the rest of the square. And though unusual notions and situations are the things that catch our attention, sometimes it’s the quotidian background against which they appear where the real action is taking place.

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