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What was venerated as style was nothing more than an imperfection or flaw that revealed the guilty hand.

Orhan Pamuk


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Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Borges the narrator

Gabriel Josipovici's essay on "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" has prompted me to go back and take a look at Borges' fictions (and to check out from the library the Collected Fictions, and to be confirmed in my impression of Hurley's translations as pitch-perfect, and to resolve to buy the volume.) One thing I'm noticing -- making very slow progress, with a lot of re-reading -- is that the identification-with-other that I like so much in most of the fiction I read is not present so strongly in Borges. The narrators are identifiably Borges -- the only case I've noticed so far where this is untrue, "Man on Pink Corner," is a comparatively weak story, it feels like he is trying too hard.

This is not a short-coming, precisely; in some stories like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" or "The Shape of the Sword," it is exactly the right thing. But it it really noticeable, and striking, for instance in "The Library of Babel" -- the narrator cannot be a denizen of the Library, else how would he have any knowledge of the books and languages he names, but must instead be Borges imagining himself in that situation. I as a reader get to identify with Borges but not, or only at second hand, with the nameless man who wanders endlessly through the Library.

It is a long time since I've read most of these stories, and I am still in the early part of the collection -- I will try and keep an eye out for whether this style of narration continues throughout.

posted evening of March 16th, 2010: Respond
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Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Fantasy

The metaphysicians of Tlön seek not truth, or even plausibility -- they seek to amaze, astound. In their view, metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy.
What really got my attention in Josipovici's piece Borges and the Plain Sense of Things, was his focus on the postscript to the story, on the narrator's experience of Tlön infiltrating and disintegrating our world. I see now that I have in the past read this story as if it were written by a Tlönian metaphysician, as a work of fantasy: my understanding of the story has been twofold, of Borges asking me to imagine a world where idealism is the obviously correct way to understand reality and a human conspiracy to invent such a world, and of Borges asking me to imagine this invented world overtaking our own. But I've been missing, or not paying enough attention to, a third aspect of this (vast) story, how Borges the narrator feels about this alteration of reality. (Maybe I should have been tipped off by Borges' footnote #2, in which he refers to Russell's idea that the world could have been "created only moments ago, filled with human beings who 'remember' an illusory past." It has never been very clear to me what this note is doing in the story; but it could certainly be there to tie the thought-experiment in to the present moment in history from which Borges is writing.)

Speaking of footnotes -- one of the things that is great about this edition of the fictions, is Hurley's painstakingly researched, unobtrusive endnotes. They are easily ignorable when you want to read the story without interruption; and they add a whole lot when you read the story with interruptions. I am taken aback to find that all of the people named in this story (excluding, perhaps, Herbert Ashe) -- Carlos Mastronardi, Néstor Ibarra, Alfonso Reyes, Xul Solar, etc. -- are real figures from Borges' milieu, and very interested at some of the books referenced. And this does not come from Hurley's notes -- but I was very happy to learn that there really is an Anglo-American Cyclopædia from 1917, which really is a reprint of an older edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.

posted evening of March 17th, 2010: Respond
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Friday, March 19th, 2010

The position of the reader

Hladik's first emotion was simple terror. He reflected that he wouldn't have quailed at being hanged, or decapitated, or having his throat slit, but being shot by a firing squad was unbearable. In vain he told himself a thousand times that the pure and universal act of dying was what ought to strike fear, not the concrete circumstances of it, and yet Hladik never wearied of picturing to himself those circumstances.

"The Secret Miracle"

posted evening of March 19th, 2010: Respond
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Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Borges the storyteller

Reading both "The Secret Miracle" and "Three Versions of Judas" -- I am identifying strongly with the main characters (Hladík and Runeberg) -- but instead of identifying with the narrator, I am identifying the narrator as Borges -- the "position of the reader" in which I find myself, is listening to him telling a story. (This reminds me of how much I enjoyed reading his lectures, picturing him addressing the class.) The third person works very well here.

These two stories go together very well, and are moderately distinct from the rest of the fictions -- both are strongly dependent on religious content*; both narrate the composition of a work which vindicates the main character -- Hladík's "grand invisible labyrinth," Runeberg's heresy -- and the character's death. "The Secret Miracle" seems to me the closest in style to Poe of any of Borges' fictions.

*I was going to call them "deeply religious," but I don't think that's quite right -- Runeberg is "deeply religious," Hladík's experience is one of religious ecstasy; understanding each story requires a willingness to identify with religious sentiment but not, I think, any personal commitment to religious thinking. I have always assumed Borges was an atheist (and a lapsed Catholic) but I don't know if that is accurate.

posted morning of March 20th, 2010: Respond

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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Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Billy Pilgrim's Progress: Visions of Eternity

Listen:

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and his death many times, he says, and paid random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

Slaughterhouse-5: or, The Children's Crusade

In Appendix III to his Christelige Dogmatik, Erfjord rebuts this passage [i.e., Runeberg's claim that it would be blasphemous to limit the Messiah's suffering to "the agony of one afternoon on the cross."] He notes that the crucifixion of God has not ended, because that which happened once in time is repeated endlessly in eternity. Judas, now, continues to hold out his hand for the silver, continues to kiss Jesus' cheek, continues to scatter the pieces of silver in the temple, continues to knot the noose on the field of blood. (In order to justify this statement, Erfjord cites the last chapter of the first volume of Jaromir Hladík's Vindication of Eternity.)

"Three Versions of Judas"

Listen: I want to take advantage of your interest in my blog, to post about some thoughts I spent a good deal of time on thinking about in my first year of college, these 21 years back -- when I was in the throes of what Scott would term my "Vonnegut phase."* This post will probably be rambling and pointless (ill-informed, too!), so if those qualities turn you off, just stop reading now, and I will (try to) stop apologizing now.

In my first year of college I spent a lot of time thinking about physics. One thing that particularly got my attention was the idea of time as a fourth dimension. My understanding of this (and listen, I never got very far with physics) was that the universe could be visualized as a four-dimensional space containing everything that ever happened or will happen, and the three-dimensional universe we inhabit as a three-dimensional space moving through this hyper-space at a constant rate -- this motion is what we experience as "time," and the present moment is the intersection of our 3-space with Reality. (I think this idea may have been laid out more fully in Edwin Abbot's Flatland.**) This picture of physical reality, which is Erfjord's conception of reality in the footnote to "Three Versions of Judas" -- taken in combination with an idealism that sees thought as existing separately from physical reality -- makes possible the chrono-synclastic infundibulum; Billy Pilgrim's experience takes as read that our "present moment" is something which has extended, eternal existence.

Well: I got upset about this. It became very important to me, to show that 3 physical dimensions are all there is -- that motion is reality, not an illusion. (I still can't answer the question, Well, what would be the difference anyway?) That past and future have existence only in our memories and expectations -- that the fourth axis is a convenient way of representing motion, nothing more. What does this entail? There is a danger of solipsism in this view -- since every perception of mine is a perception of something that has happened, and every communication reaches its object after it is uttered, saying that only the present moment "really exists" can be a way of saying that only my consciousness really exists -- and we're back to idealism. I worked through that, and my solution was materialistic -- consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the material objects that exist, that are moving -- but it never got very coherent given my lack of philosophical chops.

So there you have it, for a long time now I've been walking around with this vision of eternity, but never really committed it to paper or (since freshman year) even talked about it much, since it seemed kind of silly and pointless. It's brought back to mind by the Borges reading I've been doing recently, I thought I might as well write it down.

* ("Phase"? Well it's true, I read his books way more frequently and obsessively two decades ago than I do now; OTOH I have repeatedly been surprised, going back to them, at how well they have held up, at how strongly they continue to engage me. Though I see looking back through my blog, I have not written much at all about them.)

** (Or thinking further, this imagery might actually have been in Slaughterhouse-5.)

posted evening of March 21st, 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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Friday, April second, 2010

Some themes in Borges

I am not going to write any of these posts now (or for a while -- I am taking a little vacation from blogging this week) -- but these are some of the things I am thinking could be written about the stories in Borges' Collected Fictions:

  • Images of Christ -- Collected Fictions makes nice reading for around Easter time. With reference to "3 Versions of Judas", "Paradiso, XXXI, 108", "A Prayer", and to the final portion of Bioy Casares' diary.
  • Locality -- Buenos Aires, Argentina, Argentine history. Also Argentine literature, particularly Martín Fierro and Lugones. With reference to "Man on Pink Corner", "The End", "The South", "A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz", "The Aleph", "The Mountebank", "Martín Fierro".
  • Knife fighting (either by itself or as a subtopic of "Argentina in Borges' Stories")
  • Problems of genre -- I think categorizing a subset of Borges' writings as "fictions" leads Hurley into some trouble. This piece would also talk about reading Borges' short-story collections as collections versus story-by-story. With particular consideration of The Maker and In Praise of Darkness, as books of poetry and prose, from which Hurley has taken the prose bits.
  • Differences between Brodie's Report and his earlier work.
A belated Happy April Fools' Day, sorry about not having played any pranks on you. Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate the holiday. See you in a week or so...

posted morning of April second, 2010: Respond

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Sur

I am not the first author of the story called "The Library of Babel"; those curious as to its history and prehistory may consult the appropriate page of Sur, No. 59, which records the heterogeneous names of Leucippus and Lasswitz, Lewis Carroll and Aristotle.
—foreword to The Garden of Forking Paths
Victoria Ocampo (sister-in-law of Bioy Casares and an important figure in the Buenos Aires literary scene, and the dedicatee of the title story "The Garden of Forking Paths") published Sur from 1931 until 1992 -- regularly until 1966 and infrequently thereafter. What a wealth of literature must be in those volumes! I am not finding volume 59 online anywhere -- Abebooks has a couple of editions for sale; La Biblioteca Virtual Cervantes has digitized Volumes I - VI. Maybe the NYPL would have it in their collection... off to check in with a couple of librarian friends for advice.

Update: Found it!

posted afternoon of May 29th, 2010: 2 responses

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