JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 434 (Dedicated to Jeff Donlan)
"Words are prophetic in themselves and the tea leaves open the avenues of imaginative thought." Your Fortune in the Tea Cup
"This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here."--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §201
"Are you certain that you understand my language?" J.L. Borges, The Library of Babel, (the final query)
"The always wandering meaning of all literary representation, according to which meaning wanders, like human tribulations, like error, from text to text,
and within the text, from figure to figure." Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism.
Written, incised and drawn messages come to us in many forms, presented in clay, chipped into stone, painted on rock, drawn on paper, tied into chords, all to be appreciated by our sweaty eye. These varied elements have many different uses, from telling us what is going on, to what is happening now, and also about what might happen in the future. Sometimes the future is a tale written in letters, and sometimes in numbers, prediction rates of success varying sorta by the ratio of letters to numbers. Or not. Sometimes it takes the forms of sticks and lines, telling us how to move in dance (as with labanotation, below-right).
Messages can be quite clear, as in the presentation of an arithmetic progression, and can also be made to seem like nothing but gibberish. The final bit of a lettered segment in Jules Verne's Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, for example, looks like this: "...KSPPSUVJHD", and is preceded by 264 other letters, looking much like a page from one of the books in our friend Borges' library at Babel. A cryptogram whose message could determine whether the main character lives or dies. (Even assuming a monoalphabetic substitution, its a tough little bugger to figure out--even when you start counting the appearances of the nonsense letters to try and figure what might stand for "E" and "A", you still have to work it against whatever language the cryptogram might've been done for. Once you toss in the polyalphabetic possibilities in, the room gets a little spinny.)
There is of course a identification of the source code for DNA, and then further to the sequencing of those elusive bits to determine and make sense of the order of the nucleotide basis, producing what on first blush looks like a laborious repetition of four basic letters interspersed with lots of other junk. With the key to this cypher, the letters and raw glyphs look less like an automated music box cylinder and more like the music of life that it represents.
Once you throw naturally-occurring glyphs into the fray the information pool becomes terrifically wide. Geological strata, the course of a lightning strike, the height of a cloud, the depth of a cave, all tell us enormous, almost incomprehensible stories, while things like stellar spectra hold the key to what stuff in the universe is made of, how old it is and where it is going.
The world is nothing but a collection of what has been written-on, and I would be terrifically remiss if I didn't mention the stories of animals left by their tracks, as full and interesting in their ticks and glyphs telling as striking a story as the geometrical marks scene on your monitor.
All of this leads us to the delightful pamphlet that provided us with the semi-secret image at the top of this post. The work engages the shadows of an ancient rite in an amused, amusing manner, not taking itself too terribly seriously, though does not abandon the possibility that fortune telling via the leavings in a tea cup is not impossible. The image at top left, which might look like one of those Eric van Daniken drunken "alien findings"scooped out of a Mayan lintel, is the bottom of an empty teacup, the bits representing the varied exuda freed from the drunken tea. And according to this pamphlet and another 2000 years or whatever of Asian history, these bits are as much a representation of reality as the English alphabet; and according to my very quick reading of the thing, it is also open as much to interpretation as it is to creative misinterpretation, which I guess is where the poetry must be. The geography of the items of the teacup are as important it seems as the things left behind: stalks, leaf bits, grounds are appraised for their wetness or dryness, their mobility or not, their position on the cup and their positions relative to one another, and on and on, dancing betwixt themselves in a changeable choreography of meaning and non-meaning, a closely gathered world of indefinite possibility.
In a world filled with religions and superstitions and mythologies and hopes and dreams and fears, I have no problem at all with elevating tea-leaf-reading to a marble altar.. None whatsoever-- so long as the ultimately satisfactory Mr. Claus is received as well, or at least not bothered.
I've reprinted the entire pamphlet below. Somehow it is a very satisfying read.
If you enjoyed this, check out the following earlier posts: