Those that tremble as if they were mad

Deciding how to slice and dice the world  – how to categorise things, how to classify – can often be more of an art than a science. As Dawkins points out there is, in at least one sense, a  single correct method of classifying living things: the One True Tree of Life he calls it. Even so, you might wish to distinguish animals according to their edibility or their propensity to eat you.

My favourite taxonomy  comes from Borges (or, as Larkin is supposed to have said, ‘Who is Borges’). The unfortunate tendency of some Western academics to leap on this list in the belief that the fictional encyclopaedia described by Borges was real, or at least based on real Eastern sources, has been taken by some as an example of the degeneracy of the Western academy, much like the Sokal Hoax.

Here it is. The classification of animals according to the The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

  • those that belong to the emperor;
  • embalmed ones;
  • those that are trained;
  • suckling pigs;
  • mermaids;
  • fabulous ones;
  • stray dogs;
  • those that are included in this classification;
  • those that tremble as if they were mad;
  • innumerable ones;
  • those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush;
  • etcetera;
  • those that have just broken the flower vase;
  • those that at a distance resemble flies