Tag Archives: Jorge Luis Borges

Reading Professor Borges

Available for the first time in English translation, Professor Borges collects a term’s worth of lectures delivered by Jorge Luis Borges in 1966 on the history of English literature. It’s a remarkable book, I think, for two quite different reasons.

It’s remarkable first of all in offering a survey of its subject that will be almost unrecognizable to most students of English literature. Fully a quarter of the course is spent on the Anglo-Saxon era of Beowulf and Co. Almost no mention at all is made of Chaucer and, in fact, seven hundred years of literary history are glibly ignored when Borges leaps directly from the Norman invasion to Samuel Johnson. Milton and Shakespeare are mentioned only in passing. After a couple lectures each for Wordsworth and Coleridge, we’re introduced to a long line of Victorians. Borges spends a really perverse amount of time on Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, Robert Browning, and (of all people) Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He concludes with Robert Louis Stevenson. Modernism he leaves tucked in the womb circa 1895.

Second, the book is remarkable because Borges’s style of presentation is no less idiosyncratic than his selection of texts. But there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s a style born of unabashed personal enthusiasm. Literary theory goes out the window (and good riddance) or, rather, it doesn’t so much go out the window as fail to obtain entrance to the room in the first place. Questions about the nature and function and politics of texts don’t seem to interest Borges. Rather, stories interest him. The old, blind Argentinian gets up in front of his students every day and he simply tells stories. He tells whole plots of numerous works. He quotes at length from memory. He tells about the authors’ lives, their absurd notions, unpleasant habits, and frequent misfortunes. Again and again he digresses into alleyways that are sometimes more surprising and more scenic than the view from the broad highway.

The epilogue of Professor Borges excerpts an interview which neatly sums up Borges’s personal philosophy of reading. “I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms,” he says. “Reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek… If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old. If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost – which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which also is not tedious to me. But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you. Reading should be a form of happiness…”

Never tedious itself, Professor Borges is unrecommendable as an introduction to English literature. It is, however, a wonderful introduction to Borges as a teacher, and it offers a fascinatingly oblique view of its subject for those already possessed of a more orthodox understanding.

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Three Paragraphs of Flu

Still ill. Worse, in fact. With the exception of a half hour spent shivering in the summery sunshine we don’t deserve in February, I’ve been laid up all day with fever and abdominal pain. There are two of me in the room now, both sitting on a bed and sipping cups of broth brought us by our identical wives. To judge by his appearance and the faces he pulls, the self in the mirror is feeling better than I am, but who can say?

On second thought, it may not have been the best idea to spend all day reading Borges. When I was a boy home from school with a fever I would lean over the edge of my bed and stare at the carpet. Fevers brought me strange powers of concentration and I was somehow able to visualize – as through an electron microscope – individual carpet fibers magnified to the height of sequoia trees. Below me was a whole forest of twisted corkscrews of steel twenty feet thick. It gave me a sick, dizzy feeling to think of them. I feel something similar reading passages like the following, from Borges’s story The Writing of the God:

‘What sort of sentence, I asked myself, would be constructed by an absolute mind? I reflected that even in the languages of humans there is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say “the jaguar” is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth… A god, I reflected, must speak but a single word, and in that word there must be absolute plenitude. No word uttered by a god could be less than the universe, or briefer than the sum of time.’

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Electric Babylon

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries…

Anyone familiar with the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges will instantly recognize these as the opening lines to his 1941 short story The Library of Babel.  Borges’ alternate universe, a library-cosmos, is made up of nothing but interconnecting chambers full of randomly shelved books, extending in every direction, and through which librarians (that is, people) are fated to wander their whole lives long.

Most of the books in Borges’ library are perfect gibberish.  Letters and symbols are arranged on the page at seeming random or according to patterns which provide no foothold for interpretation.  Denizens of the library, even after a lifetime of searching, consider it a great triumph to find a book containing a single intelligible sentence.  However, since the Library is infinite, it can only be conjectured that somewhere in the numberless galleries there exists every possible book, every work of literature, every poem, every instruction manual, every biography of all past and future persons, every history and every prophecy –as well as a mind-numbing multiplicity of textual variants and forgeries.

I ask: what is the Library of Babel today if not the Internet?  Certainly I’m not the first to see the obvious parallels.  Hasn’t Borges’ fictional library achieved a sort of flickering actuality in this so-called “worldwide” Web that extends indefinitely in every direction, page upon page, link upon link, and gallery upon gallery?  The Web encompasses every imaginable variety of human expression.  Full of rot and nonsense, for sure, it nonetheless holds in its digital recesses virtual encyclopedias of accumulated knowledge, experience, observation, trivia and arcana.

This Digital Age, if you want to call it that, is little more than twelve years old.  It only began to come into its own about the time I finished college. Graduating in ’95, mine was the last generation of university students to receive an entirely “offline” education: no assignments or syllabi posted on the Web; no online discussion forums; no laptops in the classroom; no Power Point presentations and no class email lists.  Everything was done on paper.  (In fact, one summer I took a job with the university’s Records department where every grade for every class for every student for over a hundred years was stored on typed or hand-written paper transcripts – which sounds downright medieval now.)  It was only in my senior year, that we were given email addresses – but we didn’t really know what to do with them, and neither did our professors.

However, I do recall wasting a lot of time that year in a place I’d hardly set foot in before: the computer lab.  Some friends and I were using a now-archaic telnet protocol to log into a multi-user dimension (MUD) founded by Pavel Curtis, called LambdaMOO. This was a sort of precursor to today’s online communities like Second Life (which I’ve never visited, but I get the idea).  LambdaMOO was a text-based virtual-reality environment that mimicked a vibrant, rather chaotic city.  At its height, it claimed over ten thousand members.  After gleaning some basic knowledge of how things worked and a few special commands, users could shape their character’s identity, construct their own additions to the metropolis, and interact with -even manipulate- those around them.

I once dated a girl in LambdaMOO.  We went for “walks” together.  We met for “drinks” at bars in the hip central district of the city.  We went “dancing” too (which is difficult to do in text).  We even crossed the line and spoke over the phone, which was a mistake.  She was from the South and I was charmed by her accent, but her real life was too complicated and distant and I didn’t want to get involved.  It wasn’t long before I got sick of my new life in the far corners of the computer lab and returned to my old life in the far corners of the library.

When the World Wide Web arrived, everything changed.  I remember the first time I ever saw image content online through a browser (Mosaic?).  I was impressed.  We all were.  I began to understand that possibly something revolutionary was happening. Was it a good revolution, or a bad one?  I wasn’t sure.  But along with everyone else I watched in mute fascination as the edifice of the Web was built up before us like a new Tower of Babel, soaring upward toward some vague appointment in the digital heavens.

If you are my age or older, you will recall that at its birth the Web was not a consumer space, nor was it a governmental space.  Its prophets announced it as the universal solvent, an equalizer, a democratizer, a peacemaker.  It was supposed to be the harbinger of a new era in human consciousness.  It was immaculate.  It could never, they said, be tampered with by men of ill intent.  It could never be commercialized.  It could never be politicized.  By its very nature it would call forth all that was right in the human spirit, uniting and pacifying strangers and enemies across the thousands of miles, ideological or actual, that separated them.  In all sincerity the question was posed: How could there be hatred, conflict, war, when the mothers and children of Tehran, Moscow, Pyongyang and New York could reach across the frontiers of governmental belligerence and hold virtual hands in peace?

It sounds perfectly ridiculous now.  It was only slightly less ridiculous sounding then.  The Web has become like any other organ of human cultural expression.  No one today seriously considers the Web in itself a promoter of peace and universal harmony.  In many ways it has become the consummate field for conflict and partisanships of all kinds: political, religious, sporting, consumerist, sexual, ethnic, academic, you name it.  For some it may still be a forum for the promotion of peace, knowledge and community.  For others, it’s a forum for inanity, indulgence, or cost-effective and unfettered propagandizing.  The Internet has simply, inevitably, become an extension of our best and worst selves.

Which is not to say there isn’t any philosophical or spiritual content in our life online, just that the Web is not properly conceived as a filter designed to admit only the better angels of our nature – our demons get access too.  Even so, there is a sort of limited transcendence available through the Web that can’t help but exert an influence on our perception of ourselves and our image of the world.  We live in a different way when we live online.  As Nicholas Carr puts it:

For those seeking to transcend the physical world, the Web presents a readymade Promised Land. On the Internet, we’re all bodiless, symbols speaking to symbols in symbols.

In this respect, the Web is the Platonist’s vision of paradise, the consummation of millennia of platonic longing in western culture.  Freed from the limitations and disappointments of materiality, we gain online the godlike powers to extend our interests infinitely and to recreate ourselves according to our own desired ideal image.

And so it’s hardly surprising that, like Platonism, the Web births its own mysticisms.  I need hardly mention, for example, The Matrix or its film and video game offshoots.  More people than you might imagine are eagerly awaiting the day when, in Gibsonesque-fashion, they can cheat death by downloading their consciousness directly onto the Web.  And some of today’s New Age leftovers still speak of the Web as a means for achieving a state of universal collective consciousness.  Others see spiritual significance in the Web’s very architecture and describe visions of data packets ascending and descending through the Net’s immaterial courses like the angels on Jacob’s ladder.

In The Library of Babel there’s room for mysticism too.  Even under the weight of universal incoherence and apparent meaninglessness, the residents of the library whisper of a mythical gallery, a Crimson Hexagon in which is shelved the One Book, an Index of Indexes, containing the key to deciphering the entire cosmic library.  To find the Crimson Hexagon and read the One Book is to transcend the library itself and become “analogous to God.”

But what is this place, this Internet, after all?  A cosmic library, an unreal city, a distillation of the human spirit into bits of light, electricity, data – can we even call it a place?  I caught my first shimmering glimpse of Electric Babylon in the imaginary metropolis of LambdaMOO more than twelve years ago.  Now we are within its walls.  Electric Babylon is a city, a symbol, an idol, a mystery, a place of strange worship and strange encounters, of strong men and beggars, of priests and prostitutes, of hanging gardens and cloud-locked towers. It is a home for some and a place of exile and captivity for others.

How long, I wonder, before some curious sect of netizens begin a hushed pilgrimage to search out the Web’s own Crimson Hexagon?

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Dubious Cartography

As a kid, I spent an unhealthy number of hours in the company of the National Geographic World Atlas. And when maps of the real world, for whatever reason, failed to inspire, I charted out imaginary worlds in pencil on sheet after sheet of paper, taping them together like tiles in a mosaic that often grew to cover my entire bedroom floor. Each of my dreamed-up worlds came with a private narrative. Sometimes these found their way into written form. More often I was satisfied with the story as I’d drawn it.

A map is an abstract model of the world, a representation of reality. Even the most precise and appealing map is therefore essentially false: it can never actually be what it represents. At most it achieves an approximate truth, inasmuch as it accurately describes the relationships it depicts according to its own particular rules. But every map, regardless of accuracy, is an attempt to say something about reality; which is another way of saying that every map is a story – told in a particular way.

We might just as well say that every story is a map – drawn, if you will, in a particular way. Stories -like maps- are concerned with real objects (physical or intellectual), their characteristics, behaviors, the distances or obstacles that separate them from other objects, and what happens when two or more of these objects collide. The stories we tell, to ourselves and others, and whether couched in terms of personal experience, philosophy or tradition, are all maps of one sort or another, all designed to say something about reality, to render it intelligible through abstraction.

The need for maps is sometimes felt as a weakness.  If it’s true that only hesitant, uncertain creatures need maps, then human beings are a sorry bunch. Unable to feel quite well until we have the What, Whence and Wherefore of All Things, we are in agonies to learn how X results in Y; why four and four is never nine; why love should be so difficult, why happiness so rare; what it is, or Who, that holds all things in being – and what it is, and why, to die. So, we draw our maps and tell our stories until we feel better. We flatten life into abstraction in order to resolve its three-dimensional complications.

But though we are practiced cartographers, we’re purblind. Habit is no substitute for skill, and the fact is that our maps are not often very good. They tend to be sloppy, inaccurate, in constant need of revision. Which, frankly, is precisely why we took up the trade in the first place: we make maps because we don’t see things well, but want to see them better. We tend to forget this. We forget our dim-sightedness and flatter ourselves with the notion that, despite the flaws apparent in others’ maps, ours make for perfectly reliable descriptions of the world. When someone else’s map differs from our own, we take it as an opportunity for judgment. We’re so used to the cataracts that obscure our own field of vision, we imagine they’re simply part of the landscape.

On the other hand, accuracy in maps is overrated. Perfect fidelity imposes its own problems.  Even the most perceptive and skilled cartographer will run up against that variation of Bonini’s Paradox according to which the more perfectly a map represents the complex systems it is intended to explain, the less intelligible it becomes. (Paul Valery had the same basic idea when he wrote that “Everything simple is false. Everything complex is unusable.”) Absolute accuracy in a map is undesirable; or, if desired, its achievement would be self-defeating. To borrow an image from Borges, one could paper over the entire world in a 1/1-scale atlas, but what would be the point? It’s the same whether we’re talking about maps in terms of visual charts or in terms of stories: If we saw well enough to make truly accurate, truly representative maps of reality, we wouldn’t need maps in the first place.

But we do need maps, sometimes desperately. And we are going to keep making them, consciously or unconsciously. The difficulty is finding courage enough to admit when our maps fail. Only the most intrepid cartographer sets aside the parchment and abandons himself to terra incognita; only the most diligent finds solace in the idea that disillusionment is no mortal danger but merely a difficult sort of grace.

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