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Monday, August 4th, 2008


He thought that good literature is common enough, that there is scarce a dialogue on the street that does not achieve it. He also thought that the æsthetic act cannot be carried out without some element of astonishment, and that to be astonished by rote is difficult.
In the interests of understanding The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, I pulled down Borges' Ficciones this evening to reread "An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain" -- one of Quain's works is the misleading detective story The God of the Labyrinth, which Reis is reading early in the novel.

I'm finding this, well, a lot of fun -- the degree of layering of fiction on fiction is really astonishing. (Particularly when Borges admits to having adapted one of his own stories, "The Circular Ruins," from a manuscript by Quain.) I'm waiting for personalities to emerge, but am confident they will; for the time being I'm just enjoying the technical beauty of the composition.

It has been several years since I read any of Borges' stories; his mastery of language is washing over me again. I'm reacting to his voice in a way I never did before, which is to feel like Borges is a control freak who wants me to react to every word of his in a particular way, and is leaving no room for my own reading; not sure how valid this is, it's just a spur-of-the-moment thought.

(According to The Modern Word, Saramago is not the only author to make use of The God of the Labyrinth. In Philip K. Dick's notes for a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, there is mention of Joseph Goebbels reading Quain's book.)

posted evening of August 4th, 2008: 2 responses
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Control and relaxation

In the Gnostic cosmogonies, demiurges fashion a red Adam who cannot stand; as clumsy, crude and elemental as this Adam of dust was the Adam of dreams forged by the wizard's nights.
Seduced further into Ficciones -- "The Circular Ruins" makes me think I was wrong in calling Borges a control freak, though I still think that description might hold some water when talking about "Herbert Quain." Borges' prose is (necessarily) much more tightly circumscribed than Saramago's, there is not the same reliance on rhythm, it is cerebral rather than physical. But that is not at all the same as saying "You are only allowed to hear it in one particular way."

This looks like an interesting web site devoted to "The Circular Ruins".

posted evening of August 4th, 2008: 3 responses
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Monday, August 11th, 2008

Thoughts about Borges

I have been taking a look back at Borges' fictions over the last few days -- very quickly I am again remembering what I love about them, and also seeing some problems with them that I was not conscious of in college. Jorge López' objection that they are "lacking in the emotional area" is particularly on my mind; I must say that the stories in part II, "Artifices," seem more emotionally developed than the stories in part I, "The Garden of Forking Paths." The last line of "The Form of the Sword" really cuts deep on an emotional level. (And yes, I seem to remember liking part I better than part II when I was in college. Make of that what you will.)

I have been reading Ficciones in the 1962 Grove edition, with translations by Anthony Kerrigan, Aleister Reed, Anthony Bonner, and a few others. I'm seeing some issues with the translations and thinking this could probably be a lot better done -- then I see over at Orbis Tertius today, there is a more recent translation by Andrew Hurley, published in 1998. So, I should check that out sometime.

I've also been happy about catching references that I did not get in college -- for instance, in "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" I recognized the title character's name from the op-ed piece I linked on Friday, and knew about "The Colloquy of the Birds" from references to it in Pamuk.

posted evening of August 11th, 2008: 2 responses
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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


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

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

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

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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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

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

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