Black swans, black pearls and darkness visible

Black swans, black pearls and darkness visible August 28, 2012

I’m with Jeff Frankel on the term “Black Swan”:

“Black swan” should refer to something else: an event that is considered virtually impossible by those whose frame of reference is limited in time and geographical area, but not by those who consider other countries and other decades or centuries.

The origin of the black swan metaphor was the belief that all swans are white, a conclusion that a 19th-century Englishman might have reached based on a lifetime of personal observation and David Hume’s principle of induction. But ornithologists already knew that black swans existed in Australia, having discovered them in 1697.  They should not have been viewed as “unthinkable.”

Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath had a fun riff on this original sense of the metaphor in Bullets Over Broadway, when mobster Nick gives his girlfriend Olive a strand of black pearls:

OLIVE: What is it?

NICK: Pearls. What the hell do you think they are?

OLIVE: Pearls are white.

NICK: These are black pearls.

OLIVE: Oh, don’t give me that. I never heard of black pearls.

NICK: Just because you never heard of them don’t mean it don’t exist.

OLIVE: What do think I am, some kind of chump? They’re black for God’s sake. They probably came from defective oysters.

My own experience with black swans isn’t metaphorical. My college campus enlisted a trio of them to mitigate the annual invasion of Canada geese. Black swans and Canada geese really don’t get along.

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At Wonkette, Doktor Zoom is welcoming the school year by reading ahead in our Bob Jones University Press textbook. Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Zoom says, is “a literature textbook that ultimately argues that literature is bunk.”

The Doktor cites some impressively BobJonesian passages explaining why Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, John Ruskin and John Updike are Enemies of the Tribe, and it’s all pretty funny in a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry kind of way.

But I do almost agree with one sentence from BJU’s anti-literacy text: “A comprehensive knowledge of Joyce’s writing is not a necessary or even a healthy goal.” Anyone who’s ever gotten more than a page or two into Finnegans Wake can attest to that.

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Chris the Cynic writes about “Advice given to depressed people.” Depression is not the same as a case of the blues, or feeling glum, or down in the dumps. “If you are a healthy person, and you feel depressed,” Chris writes, “it is a mistake to assume that’s the same as what a depressed person feels.”

Read the whole thing. If you’re fortunate enough, like me, not to know what depression is like first-hand, it may be an aid to gratitude and compassion, and a helpful guide to avoiding saying stupid things.

Let me also recommend William Styron’s Darkness Visible. The novelist chronicles and describes the severe depression that nearly took his life, but never took his keen eye or writerly detachment. To me, it seemed a remarkable attempt to bridge the gap between those of us who may never fully understand what depression means, and those who know all too well. (If you’re in the latter camp and you’ve read this book, please let me know if that’s an accurate assessment.)

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