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Somehow, Cleveland has survived, with her gray banner unfurled -- the banner of Archangelsk and Detroit, of Kharkov and Liverpool -- the banner of men and women who would settle the most ignominious parts of the earth, and there, with the hubris born neither of faith nor ideology but biology and longing, bring into the world their whimpering replacements.

Gary Shteyngart


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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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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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Sunday, June 20th, 2010

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: 8 responses
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Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Story idea

This is sort of an updated take on Borges' "Los teólogos" I think -- a man is reading and blogging about a book which he's reading in a language not his own (one not available in translation); he manages to create a controversy or at least a bit of publicity around blasphemy in the text which is, however, not actually present in the source material -- it is the product of a fundamental misreading on his part, but nevertheless the controversy necessarily involves the original author of the piece, a contemporary of the blogger's who is not seeking the spotlight. This publicity becomes the author's route to fame or celebrity -- a different fame than he would have had in mind, while the (mis-)translator is of course pretty much ignored in the press and ultimately forgotten by history.

posted afternoon of November 28th, 2010: 1 response
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