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Friday, February 20th, 2009

El Libro

Of all the diverse tools of man, the most astonishing is, without a doubt, the book.
At the library today I found a lovely little book by Jorge Luis Borges -- it is called Borges oral and is the texts of five lectures Borges gave at the Universidad Belgrano, in Buenos Aires, in the 70's. The topics are "The Book", "Immortality", "Emmanuel Swedenborg", "The Detective Story", and "Time" -- Borges says he "chose topics with which I have occupied my time."

The first lesson is very engaging and fun -- he's talking about how people have looked at the book throughout history, what space it has occupied in cultures, with reference to classical philosophy and to the Old Testament; and to Spengler's Decline of the West. Some of this is over my head but Borges has composed it in such a way as to welcome inquiry -- he is not assuming his students will understand the references but rather that they will be prompted to investigate further.

Very nice to think about the aged author (in his 70s at the time he delivered these lectures) addressing the class. I am wondering now whether these lectures were ever recorded...

posted evening of February 20th, 2009: 3 responses
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Borges as teacher

I was reading the author's preface to Borges oral just now, in which he explains how he chose each of his topics -- of "The Book," he says it is the tool "without which I could not imagine my life, and which is no less intimate to me than my hands or my eyes."

I was very taken with Borges' humble description of his role as a teacher:

Thanks to the listener, who gives me his indulgent hospitality, my classes achieved a success which I had not hoped for, and which I certainly did not merit.

As a lecture, the class is a collaborative work, and those who listen are no less important than he who speaks.

This book contains my personal portion of these sessions. I hope the reader may enrich them as much as they were enriched by the listeners.

posted evening of February 20th, 2009: Respond
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Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Nostalgia for Earth

A fun passage from the beginning of Borges' lecture "Immortality":

Without understanding [William James'] joke, don Miguel de Unamuno repeats it word for word in his The Tragic Sense of Life*: God is the provider of immortality, but he repeats many times that he wants to go on being don Miguel de Unamuno. Here I don't understand Miguel de Unamuno; I do not want to go on being Jorge Luis Borges, I want to be another person. I hope that my death will be total, I hope to die in body and soul.

I do not know if it's ambitious or modest, or at all justifiable, my pretension of speaking about personal immortality, about a soul which preserves a memory of that which was on earth and which already in the other world corresponds to the previous one. I remember that my sister, Norah, was at my house the other day and said: I'm going to paint a picture called "Nostalgia for Earth", having as its content that which an angel feels in heaven, thinking of earth. I'm going to make it up of elements from Buenos Aires when I was a girl.

It's just really nice to see Borges, whom I've always pictured as a sort of forbidding presence, talking in this down-to-earth manner, having a house and a sister...

Update: fixed a blunder in my translation, after referring to Eliot Weinberger's translation of the lecture in Selected Non-Fictions.

* Jaime Nubiola and Izaskun Martínez of the Universidad de Navarra have written a paper on Unamuno's Reading of The Varieties of Religious Experience and its Context. Nubiola also has an interesting note in Streams of William James, vol. I, #3 (pdf), on "Jorge Luis Borges and WJ", and in vol. III, #3 (pdf), on "WJ and Borges Again: the Riddle of the Correspondence with Macedonio Fernández". Professor Nubiola has confirmed to me by e-mail that as he understands it, "Unamuno is a deep believer and William James is -- at the end of the day -- a non believer, who understands the belief in God as the other side of the belief of immortality."

posted afternoon of February 22nd, 2009: 4 responses
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Cogitare ergo esse

Later in "Immortality", some source material for Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius:

And here, Berkeley maintains that matter is a series of perceptions, and that these perceptions are inconceivable without a conscious entity which perceives. What is red? Red depends on our eyes, our eyes are a system of perceptions as well. Later comes Hume, who refutes both hypotheses, who destroys the soul and the body. What is the soul, except that which perceives, and what is matter, except something perceived? If in the world we are to do away with nouns, we are left limited to verbs. As Hume says, we are not allowed to say I think, because I is a subject; one must say it is thinking, in the same manner as we say it is raining. When Descartes said, I think, therefore I am, he ought to have said, something thinks or it is thinking, because I supposes an entity and we have no right to make that assumption. He could have said: It is thinking, therefore something exists.

posted afternoon of February 22nd, 2009: 2 responses

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Mystics

Recall that fearsome sentence of Carlyle, who read -- not without benefit -- Swe­denborg, and who said: The history of the universe is a scripture which we have, which is read and is written constantly. And it's true: we are continually presenting the history of the universe, and we are actors in it. And we are also letters, also we are symbols: A divine text in which we are written. At home I have a dictionary of correspondences. One can look up any word of the Bible and see what is the spiritual sense Swedenborg gave it.
I wonder how much of my response to Borges' lecture on "Emanuel Swedenborg" is what I'm bringing to the reading, how much is Borges' intent. As I'm reading it, this lecture's principal subject is William Blake: Borges mentions Blake at a couple of points in the lecture, and always with the sense that Blake is where to go from Swedenborg, Blake is why you would want to understand Swedenborg:
The kingdom of heaven is owned by the poor in spirit, etc. This is what Jesus said. But Swedenborg adds more to that. He says that that is not enough, that a person must also save himself intellectually. He imagines heaven, above all, as a series of theological conversations between the angels. And if a person cannot follow these conversations, he is unworthy of heaven. Thus, he must live alone. And then comes William Blake, who adds a third salvation. He says that we can -- that we have to -- save ourselves also through the medium of art. Blake explains that Christ too was an artist, who did not preach through the medium of words, but of parables. And that parables are æsthetic expressions. That is to say, that salvation should be through the intellect, through ethics and through works of art.

And here let us recall some of the phrases in which Blake moderated, in a way, the great sentences of Swedenborg: The stupid one will not enter into heaven for being saintly. Or: Refuse sainthood; invest in intellect.

And in the closing words of the lecture we see the same construct:
And then comes Blake, who adds that man must also be an artist to save himself. It is a triple salvation: we have to save ourselves through goodness, through justice, through abstract intelligence; and then through works of art.

The portion of the lecture where Borges is recommending that his students can't go wrong by reading a bit of Swedenborg's writing sounds to my ear like a throw-away -- he's obviously much more interested in the man's intellectual heirs. Besides Blake and Carlyle he mentions Emerson, William and Henry James, George Bernard Shaw.

A nice bit of background: Borges introduces his topic by saying that Voltaire said the most extraordinary person in history was Charles XII, that he is instead going to talk about a subject of Charles XII. Well -- I had not even known Voltaire wrote any history. But sure enough, he wrote a biography of King Charless XII of Sweden; you can read it at Google Books.

Also, from Wikipædia comes this fantastic bit of knowledge: Johnny Appleseed was a Swedenborgian! I had no idea!

Swedenborgianism in the news: the Springfield, IL News-Sun runs a profile of the Urbana Swedenborgian Church.

posted evening of February 24th, 2009: 4 responses

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Aristotelians and Platonists

In his note on "Jorge Luis Borges and William James" (pdf), Jaime Nubiola quotes a passage from Borges' introduction to a Spanish translation of James' Pragmatism. Very nice: I now understand a little better than I ever did before the common distinction between "Aristotelians" and "Platonists". (Also, I never realized this distinction was Coleridge's coinage.) This paragraph is useful in reading Borges' lectures on Emanuel Swedenborg and on Immortality.

Coleridge observes that all men are born Aristotelians or Platonists. The latter feel that ideas are realities: the former, that they are generalizations. For the latter, language is nothing but a system of arbitrary symbols: for the former, it is the map of the universe. The Platonist knows that the universe is somehow a cosmos, an order; that order, for the Aristotelian, can be an error or a fiction of our partial knowledge. Across the latitudes and the epochs, the two immortal antagonists change their name and language: one is Parmenides, Plato, Anselm, Leibnitz, Kant, Francis Bradley; the other, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Roscelin, Locke, Hume, William James. (...) From 1889, this lucid tradition is enriched with William James. Like Bergson, he fights against positivism and against idealist monism. He advocates, like Bergson, in favor of immortality and freedom.
Here is the source for Coleridge making this observation: Table Talk of S.T. Coleridge, p. 102.

posted morning of February 25th, 2009: Respond
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Whenless whyless ultimate things

Further to the post below about Borges' lecture on Emanuel Swedenborg: I see that Borges also wrote a sonnet about the theologian.

Más alta que los otros, caminaba
Acquel hombre lejano entre los hombres;
Apenas si llamaba por sus nombres
Secretos a los ángeles. Miraba
Lo que no ven los ojos terrenales:
La ardiente geometría, el cristalino
Edificio de Dios y el remolino
Sórdido de los goces infernales.
Sabía que la Gloria y el Averno
En tu alma están y sus mithologías;
Sabía, como el griego, que los días
Del tiempo son espejos del Eterno.
En árido latín fue registrando
Últimas cosas sin por qué ni cuando.
I found two translations online, below the fold:

read the rest...

posted afternoon of February 25th, 2009: 3 responses

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

The existence of genre

Borges opens his lecture on "The Detective Story"* with a brief argument that it is legitimate to talk about literary genres. He is responding to an assertion by Benedetto Croce in "his formidable Æsthetics", that "claiming that a book is a novel, an allegory, or a treatise on æsthetics, has more or less the same value as claiming that its cover is yellow and that it can be found on the third shelf on the left." Borges makes easy, playful work of advancing his argument, but he does not really bother to point out how off-base Croce's analogy is. I will do that, because I want to take issue with something Borges says later in the lecture, and I'd rather start out with an easy argument.

The claims Croce is making about the book -- that it is yellow, that it is on the third shelf on the left -- are claims about a particular copy of the book. These are a different type of statement than claims about the book's genre, which refer to a class rather than to an instance of the class. That's all. The Stanford Encyclopædia of Philosophy says that it's "hard to find a figure whose reputation has fallen so far and so quickly" as Croce's, who fell quickly out of favor after the Second World War, and that his work is "full of the youthful conviction and fury that seldom wears well."

Anyways -- so that's sort of a warm-up for my post later this evening where I'll be arguing that Borges gets it wrong when he is characterizing the manner of reading that signals detective fiction.

* You can read the lecture online in Spanish at the blog of Theodoro and his philosophical dog; the English translation is in Collected Non-Fictions. Theodoro notes that it was included as a prologue to the 1982 edition of Seis Problemas para don Isidro Parodi (detective stories by Borges and Bioy-Casares); I don't know if it was included in the translation of that book. (Google Books suggests that it was not.)

posted evening of February 26th, 2009: Respond

In which I take issue with Borges

Borges starts out by talking about how one reads detective stories.

To think is to generalize; we need the useful archetypes of Plato to be able to make any claim. So: why shouldn't we affirm that there are literary genres? I will add a personal observation: literary genres depend, perhaps, less on the texts themselves than on the manner in which they are read. The æsthetic fact requires a conjunction of reader and text; only then does it exist. It is absurd to suppose that a volume is anything more than a volume. It starts to exist when the reader opens the volume. Then the æsthetic phenomenon comes into existence, which could be imagined from the moment when the book was engendered.

And there is an actual type of reader, the reader of detective fiction. This reader -- this reader whom we encounter in every country of the world and who numbers in the millions -- was brought into being by Edgar Allen Poe. Let us suppose that this reader did not exist -- or let's suppose something perhaps more interesting, that we are dealing with a person far removed from ourselves. He could be a Persian, a Malay, a hayseed, a kid -- some person whom we tell that the Quixote is a detective novel; let us suppose that this hypothetical person has read detective novels, and he begins reading the Quixote. So how is he going to read it?

Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, not long ago there lived a gentleman... and already this reader is filled with suspicions, for the reader of detective novels is a skeptical reader, suspicious, particularly suspicious.

For example, when he reads: Somewhere in la Mancha..., of course he supposes that this did not take place in la Mancha. Then: ...whose name I do not care to remember..., -- why does Cervantes not care to remember? Without a doubt because Cervantes is the murder[er], is at fault. Then, ...not long ago...; it may be that what has already happened is not as terrifying as the future.

The first two paragraphs of this passage seem just fantastic to me (given that I didn't think there was any real need in the first place, to defend the legitimacy of talking about genre) -- the idea that literary genre is determined by an interaction between the reader and the text has a whole lot of room for interesting stuff to com out of it. The idea that Edgar Allen Poe created the reader of detective stories is a nice little nugget of thought. And the thought experiment of reading Don Quixote as a detective story is a great idea, of course bringing to mind Borges' story about Pierre Menard. But when he embarks on the experiment, he goes off on the wrong track.

The suspicions that Borges attributes to the reader of detective fiction are suspicions about the intent of the narrator, of the author of the Quixote. But the unreliable narrator does not belong to the detective story, and suspicion of him does not belong to the detective story reader; Laurence Sterne predates Poe by a hundred years, and he did not invent the unreliable narrator. (If memory serves, for that matter, the narrator of the actual Quixote is himself not particularly reliable.*) It's been a while since I read any genre detective stories, but the way I recall reading them is being suspicious of the characters and the ways they presented themselves; the narrator (speaking here of stories in the third person or narrated by the detective, and not considering the Raymond Chandler branch of the genre) did not lie, though he might fail to disclose valuable information or might himself be deceived.

So, there's my quibble with this lecture -- which I have not read in full yet. This reading a language I do not understand seems to really point me in the direction of reading closely, at least...

...Looking ahead, some really great stuff in the body of this lecture. Stay tuned, I'll try and write more this evening. Borges thinks the two authors "without whom literature would not be what it is today" are Poe and Whitman.

* I mean to say, it seems completely natural to wonder why Cervantes does not care to remember the place where his novel begins -- but it's not because I suspect Cervantes of being the guilty party, and I don't believe it's because I have read detective stories. I wonder if a 17th-Century reader would have this reaction -- it's hard for me to imagine any other way of reacting to that sentence.

posted evening of February 26th, 2009: 11 responses
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Friday, February 27th, 2009

Borges' Opinion of Poe

As I read this lecture I'm beginning to think that Borges does not really think that much of Poe as a writer -- interesting because he says (as I noted below) that Poe changed the course of the history of literature, that Poe invented a genre and a manner of reading hugely important in our time. Of Poe as a poet, Borges says we have "a much lesser Tennyson"; he quotes Emerson in calling Poe a "jingleman." There is a hugely entertaining two-page digression in which Borges imagines the process of writing "The Raven," which is by itself worth the price of admission. Of his prose, Borges says he is "more extraordinary in the aggregate of his work, in our memory of his work, than in any of the pages of his work."

Update: I found what might be the original reference for Emerson calling Poe "the jingle man" -- the May 20, 1894 edition of the NY Times, under the headline "Emerson's Estimate of Poe" (only available as PDF) quotes the April 1894 Blackwood's Magazine:

"Whom do you mean?" asked Emerson with an astonished stare, and on the name being repeated with extreme distinctness, "Ah, the jingle man!" returned Emerson, with a contemptuous reference to the "refrains" in Poe's sad lyrics.
Update II: Fixed a blunder in my translation -- I had omitted a phrase ("in the aggregate of his work") that changes the sense of the quotation.

posted evening of February 27th, 2009: 2 responses

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