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Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.

— William Blake


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Saturday, March 20th, 2010

The City of the Immortals

That day, all was revealed to me. The Troglodytes were the Immortals; the stream and its sand-laden waters, the River sought by the rider. As for the city whose renown had spread to the very Ganges, the Immortals had destroyed it almost nine hundred years ago. Out of the shattered remains of the City's ruin they had built on the same spot the incoherent city I had wandered through -- that parody or antithesis of the City which was also a temple to the irrational gods that rule the world and to those gods about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man. The founding of this city was the last symbol to which the Immortals had descended; it marks the point at which, esteeming all exertion vain, they resolved to live in thought, in pure speculation. They built that carapace, abandoned it, and went off to make their dwellings in the caves.
I know the parallels are pretty vague; but this portion of "The Immortal" is reminding me of nothing so much as the City of Reality (and Illusions), in The Phantom Tollbooth.

posted evening of March 20th, 2010: Respond
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Monday, March 22nd, 2010

A labyrinth of fire

"The Theologians" offers an alternate vision of eternity:

Months later, when the Council of Pergamo was convened, the theologian entrusted with refuting the errors of the Monotoni was (predictably) John of Pannonia; his learnèd, measured refutation was the argument that condemned the heresiarch Euphorbus to the stake. This has occured once, and will occur again, said Euphorbus. It is not one pyre you are lighting, it is a labyrinth of fire. If all the fires on which I have been burned were brought together here, the earth would be too small for them, and the angels would be blinded. These words I have spoken many times. Then he screamed, for the flames had engulfed him.

It is (perhaps) not immediately obvious that eternal recurrence entails the same extension of the present moment I discussed in my last post -- it was not immediately obvious to me. But if the present moment is going to be repeated an infinite number of times, it must have eternal duration. And indeed you can visualize the universe of eternal recurrence with the same four-dimensional model; but instead of a straight vector, the 3-space which we inhabit has to follow a cyclical orbit.

I found the end of "The Theologians" confusing:

The end of the story can only be told in metaphors, since it takes place in the kingdom of heaven, where time does not exist.* One might say that Aurelian spoke with God and found that God takes so little interest in religious differences that He took him for John of Pannonia. That, however, would be to impute confusion to the divine intelligence. It is more correct to say that in paradise, Aurelian discovered that in the eyes of the unfathomable deity, he and John of Pannonia (the orthodox and the heretic, the abominator and the abominated, the accuser and the victim) were a single person.
-- I would have thought the pairing of "orthodox and heretic" would apply, in the context of this story, to Aurelian (or John of Pannonia) in counterpoint to Euphorbus -- that the two churchmen were colleagues with maybe a small rivalry, but both in good graces with the Church. I am missing something here.

* (And what a marvelous, breathtaking statement this is.)


Update:... on rereading I see that I was giving far too little weight to the rivalry between Aurelian and Pannonia -- this is really the principal subject of the story.

posted evening of March 22nd, 2010: Respond
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Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Zahir/mantra

Años depsués, Taylor visitó las cárceles de ese reino; en la de Nithur el gobernador le mostró una celda, en cuyo piso, en cuyos muros, y en cuya bóveda un faquir musulmán había diseñado (en bárbaros colores que el tiempo, antes de borrar, afinaba) una especie de tigre infinito. Ese tigre estaba hecho de muchos tigres, de vertiginosa manera; lo atravesaban tigres, estaba rayado de tigres, incluía mares e Himalayas y ejércitos que parecían otros tigres. El pintor había muerto hace muchos años, en esa misma celda; venía de Sind o acaso de Guzerat y su propósito inicial había sido trazar un mapamundi.Years later, Taylor visited the prisons of this district; in the one at Nithur, the governor showed him a cell on whose walls, on whose floor, on whose vault a Muslim fakir had laid out (in barbarous colours which time, not yet ready to wipe them clean, was refining) a sort of infinite tiger. This tiger, this vertiginous tiger, was composed of many tigers; tigers ran across it and radiated outward from it; it contained seas and Himalayas and armies which appeared as other tigers. The painter had died many years before, in this same cell; he came from Sindh or perhaps from Gujarat, and his initial intention had been to draw a map of the world.

"The Zahir"

Más de una vez grité a la bóveda que era imposible descifrar aquel testo. Gradualmente, el enigma concreto que me atareaba me inquietó menos que el enigma genérico de una sentencia escrita por un dios. ¿Qué tipo de sentencia (me pregunté) construirá una mente absoluta? Consideré que aun en los lenguajes humanos no hay proposición que no implique el universo entero; decir el tigre es decir los tigres que lo engendraron, los ciervos y tortugas que devoró, el pasto de que se alimentaron los ciervos, la tierra que fue madre del pasto, el cielo que dio luz a la tierra. Consideré que en el lenguaje de un dios toda palabra enunciaría esa infinita concatenación de los hechos, y no de un modo implícito, sino explícito, y no de un modo progresivo, sino inmediato. Con el tiempo, la noción de una sentencia divina parecióme pueril o blasfematoria. Un dios, reflexioné, sólo debe decir una palabra, y en esa palabra la plenitud. Ninguna voz articulada por él puede ser inferior al universo o menos que la suma del tiempo. More than once, I screamed at the vaulted ceiling that it would be impossible to decipher this testament. Gradually, the immediate riddle confronting me came to trouble me less than the general riddle: a sentence written by a god. What sort of sentence (I asked) would an absolute consciousness construct? I reflected: even in the languages of humanity there is no proposition which does not imply the entire universe; to speak of the tiger is to speak of the tigers which begot it, the deer and turtles which it ate, the pasture on which the deer nourished themselves, the earth which was mother of the pasture, the heavens which gave forth light onto the earth. I reflected: in the language of a god, every word must bespeak this infinite concatenation of things, not by implication, but explicitly; not in a progressive manner, but in the instant. With time, the notion of a divine sentence came to appear puerile, blasphemous. A god, I reasoned, would only be able to say a single word, and in this word would be everything. No voice, no articulation of his could be inferior to the universe, could be less than the sum of all time.

"The God's Scripture"*

The twenty-centavo piece which falls into Borges' palm and destroys him in "The Zahir," is the same entity which Tzinacán labors mightily to comprehend (and which destroys him) in "The God's Scripture." (Notice Borges says at the beginning of his tale, "I am not the man I was then, but I am still able to recall, and perhaps recount, what happened. I am still, albeit only partially, Borges" -- Tzinacán closes his story saying, "I know I shall never speak those words, because I no longer remember Tzinacán.")

What I remembered about "The Zahir" before I reread it today, was the broad arching theme of it, the object which is a manifestation of God, which cannot be forgotten, which drives people mad; I had totally forgotten what a great story it is, the characters, the local flavor of Buenos Aires.

* Update -- Thinking further, I would rather translate this story's title -- "La escritura del dios", which Hurley renders literally as "The Writing of the God" -- simply as "Scripture".

posted evening of March 28th, 2010: Respond
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Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Homeric scribblings

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:

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.
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.

posted evening of May 26th, 2010: Respond
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Friday, May 28th, 2010

Aurelianus' sources, and Pannonia's

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:

  • 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.
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**.

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,

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.
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.

** (Note that Naturalis Historia is also one of the books which Borges leaves with Funes (the memorious) the second time he sees him.)

posted afternoon of May 28th, 2010: Respond
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Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Borges the storyteller (part III of...)

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:

  • "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.
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.

(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.)

posted evening of June 15th, 2010: 4 responses
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Saturday, June 19th, 2010

The Immortal

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.
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!)

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.)

posted morning of June 19th, 2010: Respond
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Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Argentina

"Amanecer en la pampa", Luis Alberto Lecuna
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".

posted morning of June 20th, 2010: Respond
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More Aurelianus and Pannonia

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.

from the teachings of the Histrionic heretics

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...

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.

posted evening of June 20th, 2010: 7 responses

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Labyrinthine

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.
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...

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.

posted morning of June 26th, 2010: Respond
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