Sunday, December 7, 2008

The creative genius of disorganized chaos

I have a confession to make. Whilst I tidy up from time to time, my desk - and my office - rapidly become disorganized again, and I tend to work surrounded by papers, scraps of work, correspondence, a mug (or two) of tea, the odd plate, piles of books . . . you get the picture. Neat and tidy, it ain't.

I've always been bothered by those who insist that a neat desk is a sign of an organized, creative mind. I'm afraid I just don't fit the mold. Now, I'm delighted to find a kindred spirit, Clive James, has written a wonderful article for the BBC.

As I prepare this script, tapping away at the keyboard as Socrates might have done if he had owned a PC, it seems to me that my brain is at my fingertips, with all its scope and knowledge. But then, after looking up at the screen and noticing that the last two sentences are all in capitals and include various chemical formulae for substances unknown to science, I bounce my forehead off the desk and make the supreme mistake of looking around my room.

It's in chaos. The pontificator with plans for fixing the world can't organise his own desk, and as for what lies beyond the desk, forget about it. The evidence that I've spent years forgetting about it is all out there. Piles of old newspapers and magazines. Stacks of box files containing folders containing memos about the necessity to buy more folders and box files. Hundreds of books uselessly hidden behind hundreds of other books. A small statue of a Sumo wrestler, or else a life-sized statue of a small Sumo wrestler. A bag of random receipts that my accountant might have found quite useful in their year of origin, 1998.

But let's start with the desk. Or rather, let's not. The desk is too much. Little of its surface is visible through piled notebooks and shuffled papers. But observe this vertically striped earthenware mug full of ball-point pens. If the phone rings with information I must take down, I reach for one of these pens and find that it does not work.

In the same vertically striped mug there are 15 other pens that do not work either. Vaguely I remember the day when I planned to sort through these pens and retain only those that did work. But I got distracted. What else is in the same mug? Jelly beans, several of which have grown fur.

And that's just the mug. What about this desk drawer over here on the right? Ah, there's a touch of organisation here. Every year I put a new set of vital names and addresses in the designated section of my appointments diary. But I never get round to transferring vital names and addresses from previous diaries into the current one. So there are 10 years of diaries in this drawer alone, to supplement the line-up of 20 years of diaries standing over there in the corner of the room behind that valuable stack of obsolete phone books. Or, as I have just typed, obsotel nophe kobos.

. . .

Scientists call it entropy. Back in the early 19th Century, Carl von Clausewitz, in his great work about military strategy On War, called it Friction. Clausewitz said that you have to have a plan for the battle but the plan had better include plenty of room for the absolute certainty that the plan will start growing fur from the first moment of its execution.

I have just been checking up in my copy of Clausewitz - I had to buy another copy, because my original copy is somewhere in my bookshelves, which means that it might as well be on Mars - and I can tell from every sentence that he was writing with the insight conferred by self knowledge.

I'll bet all the money in my foreign coin collection - it's over there in the fruit bowl, and some of those hundreds of obsolete francs and deutschmarks are sure to be worth something to collectors a hundred years from now. I'll bet all that money in the fruit bowl - and if you're asking where the fruit is, I gathered up all my powers of organisation and threw it out only a month after I forgot to eat it. I'll bet all that money that Clausewitz, when he was working on his magnum opus in his last years, was sitting at a desk that looked like the morning after the Battle of Waterloo.

His name for the accumulated effect of Friction was the Fog of War. When I read that, I could tell straight away that here was a man who, like me, couldn't toast a slice of bread without filling his apartment with smoke. When his widow prepared his manuscript for posthumous publication, she probably found sandwiches in it.

. . .

But even the most self-aware pontificator is still likely to expect too much of the world. Rarely will he be sufficiently amazed that society functions at all, considering some of the human material it has to work with. In ancient Greece, the philosopher Diogones, wedded to simplicity, lived in a tub. But he still roamed the streets of Athens by daylight while carrying a lamp. He said that he was looking for an honest man, and everybody wrote it down, saying that Diogones the cynic was a piercing analyst of the human condition. But maybe he just didn't know how to turn the lamp off.

Sitting at this computer, on whose keyboard I have just typed the word "lamp" and actually written the word "lump", I am face to face with an item of technology that Diogones would not have known how to switch on. I barely know how to switch it on either, have often failed to switch it off - why does it ask me "do you wish to report the error" when I don't now what the error is? And yet I do know that its mere presence in the pile of rubble I call my desk is sending me a dangerous signal.

This miracle of machinery is telling me that order can emerge from chaos after all. Well, yes, it can, but only against heavy odds, because chaos is inherent even in the minds of those who make the miracles. And it is certainly inherent within the pontificator. I can pontificate about that with some certainty, even as I type the last words of this sprict, scirpt, script, reach for my mug of coffee and get a mouthful of ball point pens.

I love it! Read the rest of the article here, and laugh along with me. Thank you, Mr. James!



Michael W. said...

Diogones may have been looking for a honest man,but I prefer to think that he was either looking for a very clever accountant, or a very sneaky lawyer..........

But that's just me.....


Anonymous said...

Somebody got the quote wrong. It should actually be "A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind" (or someone who isn't working at their job...)