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Liberty is not a woman walking the streets, she is not sitting on a bench waiting for an invitation to dinner, to come sleep in our bed for the rest of her life.

José Saramago

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Sunday, August first, 2010

Adapting Borges

Lönnrot: Hello, Zunz --

Zunz: Inspector Lönnrot?

L: Yeah -- I hope you don't mind me calling at this hour, but ah... I was just wondering if you managed to turn up anything on the ninth attribute of God yet.

Z: The ninth attribute of God?... Well yes, it's the immediate knowledge of everything that will exist, exists or has existed. ...Is everything all right, inspector?

I was interested to find out the other day that Death and the Compass had been adapted into a movie a few years ago, and that the movie is watchable online. It is adapted by Alex Cox, who directed Repo Man, and the (amazing) soundtrack is by Pray for Rain, a band which has apparently been around since the eighties.

Cox directs this piece masterfully -- I am in awe of his adaptation, which took off in a direction I was not expecting at all, but which had me believing by the end of the movie that Scharlach was speaking words Borges had written -- Cox' screenplay has drunk of the same well Borges was going to when he wrote this. The radical deviations from Borges' storyline only serve to make it a better movie, truer to the original. You can watch the movie online at; I recommend it highly.

An interview with Cox about how he picked this story.

posted evening of August first, 2010: 7 responses
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Sunday, July 18th, 2010


...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the "ingenious layman" Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history.
-- "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote" (Hurley's translation)
It was not until I was reading the Quixote this evening and happened on the quoted line (near the end of the ninth chapter) that I realized it is not a mere rhetorical flourish, that Borges is calling attention to the line for his own reasons. (Still not exactly sure what those reasons are...; but the line comes at the end of bit of meta-storytelling that sounds to my ear very Borgesian, about the discovery and translation of Benengeli's history. When I'm reading it now it sounds like Cervantes is being ironic about the truth-value of his story.)

posted evening of July 18th, 2010: 4 responses
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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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Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Examples of memorie

The piece of Pliny's Natural History which Funes is reciting the third time Borges sees him is from the beginning of Book VII*, chapter 26; in Philemon Holland's translation:

AS TOUCHING MEMORIE, the greateſt gift of Nature, and moſt neceſſarie of all others for this life; hard it is to judge and ſay who of all others deſerved the cheefe honour therein: conſidering how many men have excelled, and woon much glorie in that behalfe. King Cyrus was able to call every ſouldior that he had through his whole armie, by his owne name. L. Scipio could doe the like by all the citizens of Rome. Semblably, Cineas, Embaſſador of king Pyrrhus, the very next day that he came to Rome, both knew and alſo ſaluted by name all the Senate, and the whole degrees of Gentlemen and Cavallerie in the cittie. Mithridates the king, reigned over two and twentie nations of diverſe languages, and in ſo many tongues gave lawes and miniſtred juſtice unto them, without truchman: and when hee was to make ſpeech unto them in publicke aſſemblie reſpectively to every nation, he did performe it in their owne tongue, without interpretor. One Charmidas or Carmadas, a Grecian,††† was of ſo ſingular a memorie, that he was able to deliver by heart the contents word for word of all the bookes that a man would call for out of any librarie, as if he read the ſame preſently within a booke. At length the practiſe hereof was reduced into an art of Memorie: deviſed and invented firſt by Simonides Melicus, and afterwards brought to perfection and conſummate by Metrodorus Scepſius: by which a man might learne to rehearſe againe the ſame words of any diſcourſe whatſoever, after once hearing.

††† Carneades, according to Cicero and Quintilian.

* (The same volume to which John of Pannonia will refer in "The Theologians".)

posted evening of June 9th, 2010: Respond
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My sorry condition of being an Argentine prevents me from engaging in the genre -- obligatory in Uruguay -- of dithyramb; my subject is after all a Uruguayan.
Line from "Funes, the memorious" has me looking around to see if there are any examples of old Uruguayan dithyramb chanting... and I do not find that, not exactly*. But check out this more recent Chilean group, Ditirambo.
(Ditirambo's other videos are worthwhile as well.)

* And I have a sneaking hunch that Borges is not saying quite what I at first took him to be saying, either -- that the usage is exaggeration or mis-naming, that "dithyramb" is here just a manner of speaking.

posted evening of June 9th, 2010: Respond
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Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Before the Library of Babel

The caprice, the fantasy, the utopia of a Total Library has certain characteristics which are easily mistaken for virtues. Incredible, in the first place, how long it took mankind to arrive at this idea. Certain passages which Aristotle attributes to Democritus and to Leucippus clearly prefigure it; but its tardy inventor is Gustav Theodor Fechner; its first expositor, Kurd Lasswitz.
The note in Sur #59 to which Borges referred in the foreword to The Garden of Forking Paths, is his essay "The Total Library" -- I thank Daniel Balderston of the Borges Center at U. Pittsburgh for pointing this out to me. "The Total Library" (which has appeared many times in translation, most recently in Selected Non-Fictions) is a lovely read and excellent companion material for "The Library of Babel" -- it lacks the haunting, overpowering sense of futility which is that story's strongest characteristic, but it lays out clearly and concisely the premises underlying the story and its sources of inspiration.

See also Theodor Pavlapoulos' essay, Lasswitz and Borges: Indexing the Library of Everything; and Lasswitz' story Die Universalbibliothek.

posted evening of June 8th, 2010: Respond

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Mimicking Chaos, Censoring Nonsense

The denizens of the Library have different ways of dealing with their lot in life...

Es verosímil que esos graves misterios puedan explicarse en palabras: si no basta el lenguaje de los filósofos, la multiforme Biblioteca habrá producido el idioma inaudito que se requiere y los vocabularios y gramáticas de ese idioma. Hace ya cuatro siglos que los hombres fatigan los hexágonos... Hay buscadores oficiales, inquisidores. Yo los he visto en el desempeño de su función: llegan siempre rendidos; hablan de una escalera sin peldaños que casi los mató; hablan de galerías y de escaleras con el bibliotecario; alguna vez, toman el libro más cercano y lo hojean, en busca de palabras infames. Visiblemente, nadie espera descubrir nada.

A la desaforada esperanza, sucedió, como es natural, una depresión excesiva. La certidumbre de que algún anaquel en algún hexágono encerraba libros preciosos y de que esos libros preciosos eran inaccesibles, pareció casi intolerable. Una secta blasfema sugirió que cesaran las buscas y que todos los hombres barajaran letras y símbolos, hasta construir, mediante un improbable don del azar, esos libros canónicos. Las autoridades se vieron obligadas a promulgar órdenes severas. La secta desapareció, pero en mi niñez he visto hombres viejos que largamente se ocultaban en las letrinas, con unos discos de metal en un cubilete prohibido, y débilmente remedaban el divino desorden.

Otros, inversamente, creyeron que lo primordial era eliminar las obras inútiles. Invadían los hexágonos, exhibían credenciales no siempre falsas, hojeaban con fastidio un volumen y condenaban anaqueles enteros: a su furor higiénico, ascético, se debe la insensata perdición de millones de libros. Su nombre es execrado, pero quienes deploran los «tesoros» que su frenesí destruyó, negligen dos hechos notorios. Uno: la Biblioteca es tan enorme que toda reducción de origen humano resulta infinitesimal. Otro: cada ejemplar es único, irreemplazable, pero (como la Biblioteca es total) hay siempre varios centenares de miles de facsímiles imperfectos: de obras que no difieren sino por una letra o por una coma.

It seems likely that these mysteries could eventually be explained with words: if the philosophers' language be insufficient, our multifarious Library has somewhere produced the never-heard language that will do it, the vocabulary and syntax of this idiom. Four hundred years ago already, men were becoming tired of these hexagonal cells... Now there are official sheriffs, inquisitors. I've seen them myself, carrying out their duties: always visibly exhausted -- they speak of a staircase missing a rung, which they almost died on; they speak of the galleries and the staircases with some librarian; sometimes, they grab the closest book and leaf through it, looking for forbidden words. It's plain on its face that none of them expects to find anything.

On these wild hopes followed, as is natural, a bleak sense of depression. The certainty that some one shelf in some hexagon bears precious books, that these precious books are unreachable, was almost intolerable. One heretic sect proclaimed that we must stop our searches; that all humanity must mix letters and symbols, until we devise -- through some incredible stroke of fortune -- the books of canon. The authorities found themselves obliged to enforce a strict prohibition. The sect vanished, but in my childhood still, I saw old men who would hide themselves in the water closets with some metallic discs and a forbidden cup, and weakly they would imitate divine chaos.

On the other hand were those who believed that man's destiny was to eliminate the nonsensical works. They would attack the hexagons, show (not always forged) credentials, would leaf annoyed through one volume and condemb entire shelves: to their hygienic, ascetic fury is due the senseless loss of millions of books. Their memory is execrated -- but those who deplore the "treasures" that they destroyed in their frenzy are ignoring two important facts. One: the Library is so vast as to be only infinitesimally affected by any reduction of human origin. And the other: every volume is unique, irreplaceable; but (since the Library is everything) there are always hundreds of thousands of imperfect copies: works which differ in only one letter, one comma.

Whew! I sat down to copy a sentence from "The Library of Babel" -- the thing about weakly imitating divine chaos -- and kept seeing other things that needed to go into the post... This story comes close to the end of Borges' first proper collection of fictions, The Garden of Forking Paths, and it crystallizes in new ways some of the themes that have been running through this book -- principally it is a logical extension of "The Immortal," with infinite chaos taking the place of eternal life. The narrator's weariness with trying to understand this infinity is palpable. (The old men weakly imitating divine chaos have me flashing on Homer's asemic writing in that story.) It's funny because I went into today's reading with a memory of this as being one of the weakest stories in this volume, and got knocked over by its power.

Anyway -- an overlong post with a too-high excerpting-to-analysis ratio, enjoy...

posted evening of June 6th, 2010: Respond
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Tuesday, June first, 2010

A Brief Diſcourſe of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in N O R F O L K.

The ending of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" finds Borges sitting in the hotel in Adrogué where his family spent their summers during his childhood, working on revisions to "an uncertain Quevedian translation... of Browne's Urn Burial." (What is "Quevedian"? -- It must mean "in the manner of Quevedo" -- I have no idea what this would mean in this context...)

Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial is a 17th-Century discourse on an archæological discovery, a Roman grave site in Norfolk. The text of Hydriotaphia is online at the University of Chicago's Sir Thomas Browne page, with this amusing note from the maintainer of the site:

Hydriotaphia and the Garden of Cyrus were published together in 1658, on which edition this web edition is based. They form a work that is somewhat difficult but rewarding to read. The number of critics who have a rock-solid grasp of the entire work can be counted on the fingers of one foot, so there's an open field out there for those inclined towards such work. Most critics read Hydriotaphia and comment on it as though they had in fact finished both sides. Among those whose comments are more interesting are Carlyle, Lytton Strachey, and, somewhat surprisingly, Virginia Woolf. Among those whose work seems to be based on something else the stand-out is Gosse, whose commentary is so unrelated to the text putatively in front of him that it becomes a case-study in itself.

William Hamilton's address "Sir Thomas Browne, Jorge Luis Borges y Yo" is reprinted in the Atlantic of June 2003.

Borges refers to his translation of Browne's Urne Buriall in this interview. It seems like he did actually translate it or part of it in Quevedian Spanish, I am looking for more info about this.

Christopher Johnson has an essay in Translation and Literature called "Intertextuality and Translation: Borges, Browne, and Quevedo".

Possibly "Quevedian" just means the language of the translation is archaic, 17th-Century Spanish. -- More info from John and Rick in comments.

And Gosse père wrote Omphalos, which prefigures Russell's idea that the world was created just minutes ago with people's memories created intact, which is referenced in a footnote to "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" -- bringing us full circle.

posted evening of June first, 2010: 5 responses

Saturday, May 29th, 2010


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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Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Billy Pilgrim's Progress: Visions of Eternity


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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