Saturday, June 27th, 2015
Not totally sure what to make of this yet... It is at the very least a fascinating idea for a project...
Saturday, February 5th, 2011
Rereading "La escritura del dios" last week, I was inspired to do some searching for background material, to find out who is Qaholom, the god who has written his sacred scripture in the markings of the jaguar for Tzinacán to read. I found out about the Popol Vuh, a transcription of the K'iche' creation story -- written down in the 1500's by a Jesuit missionary in Quiché, Guatemala based on the reading of a (no longer extant) hieroglyphic document, translated into Spanish and annotated by Adrián Recinos.
According to Recinos, Qaholom is "the paternal god, the god who sires children, from qahol, 'a father's son', qaholoj, 'engender'." Recinos also notes that Gucumatz (one third of the trinity which is called Heart of the Heavens, and I think possibly another name for Qaholom? -- I haven't quite got the pantheon straight yet) is a "serpent covered with green feathers, from from guc, in Maya, kuk, 'green feathers', Quetzal via antonomasia, and cumatz, 'serpent'; he is the K'iche' version of Kukulkán, the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl, the Toltec king, conqueror, bringer of civilization, god in Yucatán during the epoch of the Post-classical Mayan Empire."
Wednesday, July 14th, 2010
I've started reading Richard Slotkin's Regeneration through violence with the idea that I might be able to draw some parallels between his narrative of myth formation and Borges' stories... In service of that end, here is a passage from "Narrative of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden" (from The Aleph) and one from Slotkin's book.
John Williams' narrative, The Redeemed Captive, taught that the ultimate salvation of the soul itself was really at stake in the trial by captivity. One of Williams' daughters, who was very young when captured, could not be won from her captors in time for repatriation with her father. The result was typical of the fate of many captives: she forgot her language and her catechism and became at once a papist and a pagan savage, married to an Indian. Despite the efforts of her father and her family to bring her back, she refused all opportunities to resume her former life. On one occasion she returned to the neighborhood of her birthplace (Deerfield, MA) dressed as an Indian. Her friends clothed her in the English fashion and sent her to meeting, but she "indignantly threw off her clothes in the afternoon, and resumed the Indian blanket." By her own declaration she preferred the Indian way of life. ...she declared that she would never move again from Canada to New England because to do so would "endanger her soul."
Her visit occurred in 1740-41 at the height of the Great Awakening, and her presence in the congregation had been the occasion for "A Sermon Preached at Mansfield, August 4, 1741, at a Time set apart for Prayer for the Revival of Religion," by Pastor Solomon Williams. It was perhaps Williams' attempt to use her as an example of God's delivering a soul from bondage to the devil that made her afraid of "losing" in New England the "soul" she had developed in thirty-eight years of captivity.
-- Chapter 4, "Israel in Babylon"
Perhaps for one instant the two women saw that they were sisters; they were far from their beloved island in an incredible land. My grandmother, enunciating carefully, asked some question or other; the other woman replied haltingly, searching for the words and then repeating them, as though astonished at the old taste of them. It must have been fifteen years since she'd spoken her native language, and it was not easy to recover it. She said she was from Yorkshire, that her parents had emigrated out to Buenos Aires, that she had lost them in an Indian raid, that she had been carried off by the Indians, and that now she was the wife of a minor chieftain -- she'd given him two sons; he was very brave. She said all this little by little, in a clumsy sort of English interlarded with words from the Auracan or Pampas tongue, and behind the tale one caught glimpses of a savage and uncouth life... An Englishwoman, reduced to such barbarism! Moved by outrage and pity, my grandmother urged her not to go back. She swore to help her, swore to rescue her children. The other woman answered that she was happy, and she returned that night to the desert.
--"The Warrior and the Captive Maiden" (Hurley's translation)
Further reading -- The Redeemed Captive; Narrative of the Captivity of Mary Rowlandson
Saturday, June 26th, 2010
In the foreword to Brodie's Report, Borges claims to be attempting ("I don't know how successfully") the composition of direct narratives, stories which do not mislead -- the implicit counterpart being that his previous volumes of stories have been labyrinths, mazes for the reader to lose himself in. (He draws a parallel to Kipling's work which I don't fully understand, need to look into that a bit more.) This is an interesting claim and I think it bears some thinking about...
|Esa obra era un escándolo, porque la confusión y la maravilla son operaciónes propias de Dios y no de los hombres.||This work [the building of a labyrinth in Babylon] caused outrage; for chaos and miracles are acts proper to God, not to mortals.|
-- "The two kings and the two labyrinths",
which Borges attributes to an inauthentic edition of the 1001 Nights.
One way of treating this foreword is as itself a clever bit of misdirection. I have only read Brodie's Report once, in the course of reading Collected Fictions this Spring, did not blog about it at all; my impression was that the stories in this volume would be, after I read them some more and got comfortable with them, my very favorite of Borges' stories, and that while there was a good deal of potential for the reader to get lost in the mazes of these stories, one would need to pull in the themes and storylines of his earlier fictions to make that happen -- that the stories appeared to be straightforward narrative but contained secondary levels in which the path of plot was not as obvious. I'm embarking on a second read now, to try and confirm some of this and to see how they hold up on rereading. Here is some beautiful prose from the foreword:
He intentado, no sé con qué fortuna, la redacción de cuentos directos. No me atrevo a afirmar que son sencillos; no hay en la tierra una sola página, una sola palabra que lo sea, ya que todas postulan el universo, cuyo más notorio atributo es la complejidad. Sólo quiero aclarar que no soy, ni he sido jamas, lo que antes se llamaba un fabulista o un predicador de parábolas y ahora un escritor comprometido. No aspiro a ser Esopo.
I have made an attempt, I don't know how successfully, at the composition of direct narratives. I am not claiming that they are simple; there is not a single page on earth -- a single word -- that is simple; for every word must assume the entire universe, whose most noteworthy attribute is complexity.* I would only like to clarify that I am not -- I have never been -- what was once called a fabulist, a preacher of parables, what is now called an "engaged" author. I have no desire to be Æsop.
*In this regard, see also "Scripture".
Reading further, he is talking about his political beliefs in a slightly combative way, or perhaps in a resigned tone with a bit of self-justification about it. He says, his writing does not contain his personal political views -- except for once, in the case of the Six Days War -- this almost sounds like a response to (or an anticipation of) people who think he was denied a Nobel prize which he deserved, on the basis of being considered too conservative. The Six Days War thing would be useful to read up on... not finding quickly what writing he's got in mind, though I see a reference to it in this Martín Zubieta piece at leedor.com.
Sunday, June 20th, 2010
Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen? Look at the moon. Do you want to hear what no ears have heard? Listen to the sparrow's cry. Do you want to touch that which no hands have touched? Touch the soil. Truly I tell you, God has not yet created the earth.
Thinking about "The Theologians" is a very fruitful activity -- it is a well that I can go back to repeatedly and never find it dry. I'm wondering what is the "discourse of 20 words" which Aurelianus uses obliquely to condemn Pannonia to the stake. Note here the deep irony of Pannonia's being condemned using words he wrote to denounce Euphorbius. But what is confusing me here is the repetition of "20 words" -- earlier Borges had noted that these 20 were the only words surviving from the work of John of Pannonia; he is attaching a lot of significance to the words -- but he never quotes them! It's a big missing piece in the center of the puzzle...
from the teachings of the Histrionic heretics
The irony that I'm seeing here in Pannonia's situation is a reflection of the irony in the Church's treatment of dissent.* The first group of heretics, the Monotoni, propose that time is cyclical, that every present moment will be repeated without end; for that Euphorbius is burned. Now the Histrioni teach that time can never repeat itself, that each instant is of necessity unique -- based on this and other crimes, an inquisitorial court is formed to prosecute them. The church's problem is with any intellectual innovation (as Aurelianus himself notes with respect to the first persecution) rather than with the specific content of the teachings.
This makes it difficult to sympathize with either of the main characters -- they are after all participating (cynically in Aurelianus' case and in John's case as a true believer, if I am reading correctly) in these inquisitions on the side of power -- I'm left to identify with the narrator as a voice of sarcasm and occasionally with a minor character like Euphorbius. Borges describes the main characters in his afterword as "a dream, a somewhat melancholy dream, of personal identity" -- which makes me wonder who he is trying to identify with.
*Side thought here -- I have never thought of Borges as a particularly political or satirical author. Is he poking fun at the power relationships in the mediæval Church here, or primarily interested in painting Aurelianus as a tragic figure? It would be worth spending some time working out what I mean by a "political and satirical author"...
There is a further irony, I think, in the juxtaposition of John of Pannonia's persecution with the vandalism of the library in the first paragraph of the story -- Volume XII of Civitas Dei was misinterpreted because the rest of the work had been destroyed; and Pannonia's 20 words were used against him because the context of his treatise had been (wilfully) forgotten.
There is something special about Borges' stories which are set in Argentina and Uruguay, particularly I'm thinking of the stories like "The South", "The Dead Man", "Funes", and of the stories in Brodie's Report -- I get a similar feeling from reading these stories as from watching Westerns -- the same sort of longing for cultural identity, construction and description of a cultural identity. In "The Dead Man" we see Borges addressing the reader directly, it takes me by surprise every time I read it. Benjamín Otálora has fled a murder charge in Buenos Aires and is working as a gaucho in Tacuarembó:
Here began, for Otálora, a different life; a life of vast dawns, days smelling of horses. This life is new to him, sometimes harsh, but it is already in his blood; just as men of other nations worship and fear the sea, we (and also the man who is interweaving these symbols) long for the infinite pampas echoing with hoofbeats.
We! Also the man who is interweaving these symbols! I don't think Borges refers so clearly and unambiguously to himself in any of his other fictions (leaving aside those pieces like "Borges and I" and "The Other" which are specifically introspective) -- that parenthesis seems to me designed to clear away all the levels of confusion about who is saying "we".
Saturday, June 19th, 2010
Bryan Nelson's post at Mother Nature Network on the 10 animals with the longest life spans has some beautiful photography, including this magnificently anthropomorphic* picture of turritopsis nutricula, believed to be the only animal with no natural limit to its lifespan. (Thanks for the link, John!)
To be immortal is banal -- except for man, every creature is immortal, not knowing of death. The divine, the terrible, the incomprehensible, is to know oneself to be immortal.
Related in only the very most tenuous and impressionistic manner, Katy Butler's piece in this mornings New York Times Magazine on dealing with her father's dementia and unnaturally prolonged death, and with a medical establishment devoted unreflectively to such prolongation, sent a chill down my spine. To be, like Ms. Butler's mother, "continent and lucid to [one's] end," seems to me a fine thing, a fate I will hope for for myself and those I love, a fate I will try to work for.
*(or "cyclopomorphic" I guess -- a grimacing Cyclops with a frizzy beard.)
Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
The anniversary of Borges' death just passed -- got me thinking of a couple of things, principally that I should get back to my translation of Réquiem by Slavko Zupcic (in which Zupcic "accidentally" kills Borges); and also about which Borges fictions would be the best ones to start out with for a new reader. (This thanks to a Facebook post of Matt Dickerson's, in which he suggested "The Library of Babel" as a starting point.)
I was thinking there might be a good argument for starting off with any of:
In the end I would probably go with "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" just because having it be one's first taste of Borges seems like a sort of canonical experience among people I know who like his work. But probably would suggest that my interlocutor skip ahead to some later work next instead of reading straight through The Garden of Forking Paths. Certainly I would recommend either starting with the translations in Collected Fictions or with those in Labyrinths.
- "Tlön, Ukbar, Orbis Tertius" -- Donald Taylor mentioned in that thread that he had not yet read the story of "The Library of Babel" but he appreciated the puzzle of it -- I think Tlön and Babel and the other stories in Garden of Forking Paths (part I of Ficciones) are a great starting point if you are primarily interested (or even "strongly interested") in the intellectual-puzzles aspect of Borges' work.
- "Funes, His Memory" -- this was the first thing I thought of, because I had read it quite recently and been really taken with the quality of Borges' voice and of his narrative. This is the first story in Artifices, which is part II of Ficciones and postdates part I by three years. Drawing of character is much stronger here than in any of his earlier stories.
- "The Immortal" -- This is the first story in The Aleph, published 5 years after Ficciones. A wonderful, wonderful story and a good introduction to the role of time and of infinity in Borges' fictions.
(Of course I am hoping the person I am recommending these stories to will feel moved to read much more of his work -- these three stories seem sort of like good vehicles for figuring out if you are interested in reading more, I don't by any means think that these three stories in isolation would be particularly enlightening.)
Friday, May 28th, 2010
I am understanding Aurelianus' motivations a little better, re-reading "The Theologians": previously I got caught up in the dispute between the Church and the Monotoni heretics, so that I missed the primary plot of the story, which is Aurelianus' striving for political stature in the Church. (This ties in nicely with the previous story, "The Dead Man," about Benjamín Otálora's striving for political stature in a gang of smugglers in Uruguay -- the two stories have little else in common.) This line seems key, following on the information of the heresy and of John of Pannonia's intention to argue against it:
Aureliano deploró esas nuevas, sobre todo la última. Sabía que en materia teólogica no hay novedad sin riesgo...*
This news troubled Aurelianus deeply, principally the last bit of news. As he was well aware, there can be in theological matters no innovation free of risk...
Aurelianus is broadly read; he feels guilty at not being completely familiar with his library. (I know the feeling!) Here are some of the sources he uses in constructing his (ultimately too complex, too laboriously researched) refutation of the Monotoni:
His rival John of Pannonia uses only two Biblical passages as the base for his refutation: The closing verses of Hebrews 9, in which the epistolarian asserts that "it is appointed unto men once to die"; and Matthew's injunction against "vain repetitions" -- and he refers also to Book VII of Pliny the Younger's Natural History**.
- On the Failure of Oracles, from Plutarch's Moralia.
- Euripides' Bacchæ (in which Pentheus claims to see "two suns").
- Origen's De Principiis -- Aurelianus quotes Origen's denial that Judas will betray Christ a second time.
- Cicero's Academics -- Cicero rejects as ludicrous the possibility of multiple parallel universes.
Oh and one more source, the book which started the whole ball of heresy rolling is the twelfth volume of Augustine's City of God (Chapter 13), miraculously left undamaged when the barbarians ransacked a monastic library a century before Aurelianus' birth. What a fascinating story this is!
* Update: Well and also,
Almost hard to see how I missed this focus last time! I was caught up, I guess, in Euphorbus' challenge to the tribunal as the flames devour him -- such a dramatic scene, it overshadows the rest of the story.
Cayó la Rueda ante la Cruz, pero Aureliano y Juan prosiguieron su batalla secreta. Militaban los dos en el mismo ejército, anhelaban el mismo galardón, guerreaban contra el mismo Enemigo, pero Aureliano no escritó una palabra que inconfesablemente no propendiera a superar a Juan.
The Wheel fell before the Cross; but Aurelianus and John continued their secret battle. They both rode forth in the same army, strove for the same prize, made war against the same Enemy; but Aurelianus did not write a single word which was not -- inconfessibly -- directed at overwhelming John.
** (Note that Naturalis Historia is also one of the books which Borges leaves with Funes (the memorious) the second time he sees him.)
Wednesday, May 26th, 2010
I've been thinking about asemic writing over the past few weeks, and I was happy to notice this passage (which I had forgotten completely) when I was rereading "The Immortal" this morning:
I've been thinking about asemic writing as a path to expressive, semantic writing, and I'm happy to think about this Immortal (who will be revealed in a few pages to be Homer) languidly tracing and correcting his asemic symbols, contemplating the possibility of communication.
Quienes hayan leído con atención el relato de mis trabajos, recordarán que un hombre de la tribu me siguió como un perro podría seguirme, hasta la sombra irregular de los muros. Cuando salí del último sótano, lo encontré en la boca de la caverna. Estaba tirado en la arena, donde trazaba torpemente y borraba una hilera de signos, que eran como letras de los sueños, que uno está a punto de entender y luego se juntan. Al principio, creí que se trataba de una escritura bárbara; después vi que es absurdo imaginar que hombres que no llegaron a la palabra lleguen a la escritura. Además, ninguna de las formas era igual a otra, lo cual excluía o alejaba la posibilidad de que fueran simbólicas. El hombre las trazaba, las miraba y las corregía.||
Those who have been reading my story attentively, will remember that a member of the tribe had followed me -- like a dog might follow me -- up to the formless shadow of the walls. When I emerged from the final cellar, I found him in the mouth of the cave. He was stretched out on the sand, where he was languidly tracing and erasing a row of symbols like the letters in a dream, letters which one is on the verge of understanding when they flow together. At first I thought it was some kind of barbarian alphabet; but then I saw how absurd it was, to imagine that men who had never arrived at the spoken word would get to writing. Furthermore, none of the shapes was the same as any other; that excluded, or rendered unlikely, the possibility that they were symbolic. The man was drawing them, then examining them and updating them.
Previous posts about The Aleph
Drop me a line! or, sign my Guestbook.
Check out Ellen's writing at Patch.com.