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The spiritual hometown of Jorge Luis Borges

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Being in Venice without thinking of Borges is impossible for me.  Although (unlike many other writers, including Henry James) Borges isn't linked to the city through past residency, many of Borges' stories feature labyrinths, among them "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth," "The Two Kings and their Two Labyrinths," "House of Asterion" and "Parable of the Palace" from The Aleph and other Stories; and a collection of his stories was published in English under the title, Labyrinths.  The importance of the labyrinth in Borges' work links him inextricably (in my mind) to Venice, a city and spectacular labyrinth in one.

I'd pondered Borges' fascination with labyrinths.  I know I'm not the first, and I'm sure many compelling explanations of Borges' labyrinth obsession exist.  Wandering around Venice yesterday, however, I came up with my own: a labyrinth is a physical representation of the brain's process of attaining insight.

As Jonah Lehrer writes in his New Yorker article, "The Eureka Hunt":

the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. "The relaxation phase is crucial," [Mark] Jung-Beeman [a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University] said. "That's why so many insights happen during warm showers."  Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up.  The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.  The right hemisphere is also unusually active. . . . We do some of our best thinking when we're still half asleep. . . . [To attain insights, w]e must concentrate, but we must concentrate on letting the mind wander.
A labyrinth mirrors a path "unwound and disorganized," and in a labyrinth, we find ourselves wandering, searching our way, "open to all sorts of unconventional" directions.  In a labyrinth, we may feel lost, but we may also stumble on the Minotaur: wild, dangerous and totally original.  To enter a labyrinth is to embark on an expedition which may end in a creative breakthrough - or a despondent failure - but which in any event takes us beyond the routines of day-to-day living.  (And, in a lovely aesthetic lietmotif, the brain and its neural networks look like labyrinths.)

Perhaps, in setting so many of his stories in labyrinths, Borges was consciously or unconsciously referring to his own creative process.  And perhaps, in constructing their city-republic as a labyrinth, the Venetians were invoking the blessing of the gods of genius.  Among these possibilities, however, is one certainty: in the labyrinth of my neural networks, Borges and Venice are tangled up.

(Bolognino Zaltieri's map of Venice from Wikipedia)

The line from literacy-enabled logic to immortality

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For the first time, I am reading two books together to experience the way they illuminate and duel with one another.  The two books are Walter J. Ong's, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word and René Descarte's Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences.  The result of this experiment in parallel reading is interesting: the experience is like setting my brain on fire. 

One aspect of Ong's book that reliably throws sparks is his overview of characteristics of people from primary oral cultures - that is, societies that don't write or know of writing.  Ong explains:

[A]n oral culture simply does not deal in such items as . . . formally logical reasoning processes [or] . . . articulated self-analysis . . . which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought.
(p. 55.)  In respect of articulated self-analysis, Ong elaborates:

[I]lliterates [have] difficulty in articulate self-analysis.  Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking [typical to people from primary oral societies]. . . . Externals [e.g., amount of land farmed, success of crops planted] command attention [in lieu of internal qualities]. . . . Self-evaluation [gets] modulated into group evaluation ("we") and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others [e.g., no one would respect our group if we were otherwise] . . . . Judgment bears in on the individual from outside, not from within.
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(p. 54-55.)  Reading this passage, I immediately thought of Descartes, whose self-analysis as it pertains to the quality of his mind after it emerged from his education is one of the earliest important examples (second, possibly, to Montaigne) of the expansion of human capacities enabled by literacy.  Here is Descartes describing his change in thinking about his education:

I was brought up from childhood on letters, and, because I had been led to believe that by this means one could acquire clear and positive knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely anxious to learn them.  But, as soon as I had completed this whole course of study, at the end of which it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned, I completely changed my opinion.  For I was assailed by so many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my ignorance. 
(p. 29.)  In this short passage, Descartes illustrates the opposite of the characteristics Ong earmarks.  Internals (ignorance vs. knowledgeability) matter.  The self-evaluation is not modulated into a group assessment; on the contrary, Descartes distinguishes himself from the group and societal expectations: whereas "it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned," Descartes doesn't think he belongs there.  Judgment doesn't bear in on Descartes from the outside (society would consider him "learned"), but from inside (he has discovered his own ignorance).

Formal logic, as much as self-analysis, is foreign to the consciousnesses of people in primary oral cultures.  According to Ong,

[I]lliterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive procedures at all - which is not the same as to say that they could not think or that their thinking was not governed by logic, but only that they would not fit their thinking into pure logical forms, which they seem to have found uninteresting.
. . .
A highly intelligent person from an oral . . . culture might be expected normally to react to [questions that require abstract thinking to answer, like syllogisms] . . . not by answering the seemingly mindless question itself but by trying to assess the total puzzling context . . . Is it a game?  Of course it is a game, but the oral person is unfamiliar with the rules.  The people who ask such questions have been living in a barrage of such questions from infancy and are not aware that they are using special rules.
(p. 52.)

Descartes, of course, was familiar with formal logic.  He was also critical of it:

[R]egarding logic, its syllogisms and most of its other precepts serve more to explain to others what one already knows, or even . . . to speak without judgement [sic] of those things one does not know, than to learn anything new.
(p. 40.)  Of course, Descartes' criticism is focused on the output of formal logic, not on the fact of its methodology.  Descartes is in favor of such methodology: he has developed one himself that he hopes will replace the logical methodology of the ancients.  Descartes goes on to eliminate all his received opinions in order to replace them with ones that were true, and not merely true, but

to include in my judgements [sic] nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt.
(p. 41.)  But I went in a different direction.

My brain is not as airlessly sealed off from outside influences as Decartes, which no doubt explains why I wandered off track.  These other influences include the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, where research curator Jan Stubbe Østergaard recently showed me around the museum's impressive collection of Greek and Roman statues.

In discussing Roman copies of Greek statutes,
Østergaard revealed that the Romans copied only the heads.  The Greeks didn't sculpt body-less heads; they believed that a head was not enough to reveal the man.  The Romans, on the other hand, prioritized the head (and the ideas within it) over the body (and the viscera it encases).

I began to wonder if the prioritization of heads and ideas might parallel the literacy-related changes in consciousness between the Romans and Greeks.  The Greeks, after all, transitioned from orality (in the time of Homer, 750 BC) to literacy (in the time of Plato 350 BC).  The Romans were literate.

And then, because I've also been reading Jorge Luis Borges, I began to wonder about the connection between literacy, prioritizing ideas and immortality.  Ong mentions a fascinating aspect of primary oral societies:

[They] live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.
(p. 46.)  The written word, of course, makes sloughing off memories more difficult. 

The potential for the eternal preservation of memory takes humans a step closer to immortality: our bodies may fade, but our ideas can live forever.  No wonder prioritizing ideas over viscera seems appealing.

Indeed, in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "The Immortal," the race of immortals make this same choice.  (If it were me, and my body could endure eternally, I wouldn't be prioritizing thought over bodily pleasures - quite the opposite; nonetheless, in Borges' world, immortals aren't hedonists.) 
The immortals were

immune to pity. . . . [A] man fell into the deepest of . . . pits; he could not be hurt, could not die, and yet he burned with thirst; seventy years passed before he was thrown a rope.  Nor was he much interested in his own fate.  His body was a submissive domestic animal; all the charity it required each month was a few hours' sleep, a little water, and a scrap of meat.  But let no one imagine that we were mere ascetics.  There is no more complex pleasure than thought, and it was to thought that we delivered ourselves over.
(p. 14-15.)  Taken to its logical extreme, delivering oneself to ideas extricates oneself from one's humanness.  We cannot be separated from our bodies, however tempting the notion may be.  And immortality fundamentally severs a human from her body.

Only after I followed my thoughts in the manner described above did I understand this passage from "The Immortal":

In Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a man's life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the number of his deaths.
(p. 5.)  Contrast Borges' insight with Ong's description of the paradox inherent in "writing['s] . . . close association with death":

The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers.
(p. 81.)

Immortality is for the books. 

(Image of Father Walter J. Ong, S.J. from Wikipedia; image of René Descartes from The Telegraph)

What The Witness saw

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At the Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark, floral arrangements complement the displays of furniture, paintings and tchotchkes from Karen Blixen's house.  The flowers come from a special garden, specifically tended to provide fresh flowers for the Museum's arrangements.  (After a slug invasion in the early nineties, a special, shin-high, slug-proof metal fence was erected around the garden to protect the flowers.) 

The care and attention paid by the Museum to the details concerning the flower arrangements are because Karen Blixen herself was an accomplished floral arranger and considered arranging flowers a form of art.  Photographs were taken of arrangements she'd made during her life, and the Museum claims that it "recreates" her arrangements.

Learning of this attempt at recreation, I thought of the Jorge Luis Borges story, "The Witness."  In this slender piece, a man dies in a stable.  He dies in the Kingdom of England,

but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners.  Before dawn, he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again.  The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.
(p. 161.)  Borges goes on to remind us that,

one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man's or woman's death . . . . In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.
(Id.)  He wonders, "What will die with me the day I die?  What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world?"  (Id.)  His proposals, in contradistinction to the preceding examples, are intimate, personal and apparently historically insignificant:

The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
(Id.)

Perhaps Borges believes that he has written down everything he witnessed worth preserving, so that when he dies all that remains will be meaningless outside his personal context.  Or perhaps Borges believes that he lives in a time that cannot parallel the greatness of the ancients, so that anything he witnesses cannot be of historical significance.  In any event, nothing in "The Witness" suggests a propensity on Borges' part to preserve his bar of sulfur in the drawer of his mahogany desk, and to project over it (on an endlessly repeating loop) an image of a bay horse in the vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, accompanied by a soundtrack of the voice of Macedonio Fernández.

In contrast to Borges' modesty, the efforts of the Karen Blixen Museum to ensure that Karen Blixen's flower arrangements do not die with her suggest a certain hubris that often accompanies hagiography.  Immodest and immoderate love cannot distinguish the important from the trivial aspects of the beloved. 

Similarly, the Karen Blixen Museum doesn't seem to appreciate that recreating Karen Blixen's floral arrangements is the kind of silly tribute that obsessives pay their objects of attention.  The effort doesn't present itself as an obvious priority for a museum dedicated to preservation of and promotion of a legacy that, like Karen Blixen's, is thoughtful, subversive, humorous, and controversial.  Rather, the emphasis and labor expended on the flowers suggests a focus on the fleeting and the decorative aspects, a preference for the pretty over the challenging.

In this respect, if not others, the world is a little poorer for Karen Blixen's death.
  
(Photograph of a flower arrangement in the Karen Blixen Museum gift shop taken by Maya Alexandri)

The final destiny of the gods

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My favorite story from Jorge Luis Borges' collection, The Maker (1960), is "Ragnarök."  In it, Borges describes a dream he had, in which he is at the College of Philosophy and Letters with other scholars.  Their discourse is interrupted by the sudden appearance of ancient gods (Thoth, Janus, etc.), who emerge from the Underworld and storm the dais. 

At first, people applaud and weep.  But then, one of the gods emits an animal scream of triumph, and "[f]rom that point on, things changed."

It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the gods were unable to talk.  Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them that was human; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these fugitives.  Beetling brows, yellowed teeth, the sparse beard of a mulatto or a Chinaman, and beastlike dewlaps were testaments to the degeneration of the Olympian line.  The clothes they wore were not those of a decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld's gambling dens and houses of ill repute.  A carnation bled from a buttonhole; under a tight suitcoat one could discern the outline of a knife.
Feeling that the gods are "aged predators," "playing their last trump," the scholars draw their revolvers and "exultantly" kill the gods.

The story dramatizes the modern human fear of interaction with an other that cannot communicate on human terms (e.g., gods who have degenerated to animals).  At first, the return of the gods is an event of transcendent wonder; but if the gods cannot "talk," the elating feeling of "we are not alone" is transformed into the terrifying feeling of "we are with a threat."  Humans will no longer submit to the domination of animals. 

(In the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, humans are made in the image of God.  Perhaps the most overlooked innovation of Judeo-Christianity is not monotheism, but the elimination of animal forms from the holy.  As for communication, if the Judeo-Christian God is not currently talking, it's because He chooses not to - or we choose not to listen.)

I noticed a similar kind of privileging of human communication in Kenya.  Before I lived in Kenya, I did not believe that animals had consciousness equivalent with human consciousness.  But even a short time passed in the relatively distant proximity of wild animals in Kenya convinced me (intuitively, not scientifically) that I'd been wrong.  Animals seem to me to have consciousness, but they lack a ready means of communication with humans.

That humans tend to equate consciousness with the ability to communicate on human terms is a terrible error.  It causes us not merely to fail to dwell in ignorance when we could learn from animals, but also to prefer human needs to those of animals because animals cannot persuade us that their needs deserve equal or greater weight.  The consequence - whether from destruction of animal habitats for human development, or from harvesting animals for human consumption - is the steady elimination of animals from the planet.

Borges begins "Ragnarök" with a citation to Coleridge:  "The images in dreams . . . figure forth the impression that our intellect would call causes; we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel."  Borges doesn't elucidate what his dream explains for him, but for me, "Ragnarök," explains the horror of humanity's profoundly disfigured relations with animals: not merely the defamation and violence against these "others" incapable of speaking, but the exultant joy in destroying them.

If we mourn ourselves as a godless and abandoned species, this is why. 

(Image of the god Thoth from BBC)

Borges and Bolaño

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In a prior post, I speculated about possible reasons for Roberto Bolaño's propensity to create writer characters whose oeuvres remain opaque to the audience.  By depriving these writer characters of an oeuvre, Bolaño isolates them from the possibility of literary dialogue with other authors and texts.  I conjectured that Bolaño might conceive of such a writer character as a symbol of mortality.

Now, however, I have a new theory.  I think Bolaño's oeuvre-less writers are a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges, after all, is the author who (as I highlighted in another prior post) eschewed composing actual novels in favor of imagining them and then commenting on them.  Borges' short stories, moreover, overflow with texts that we don't see (e.g., John of Pannonia's tract against the heresy of the Monotoni in "The Theologians"; Borges' own fantasy tale about the serpent Fafnir in "The Zahir"), and with texts that we don't see completely (e.g., Benjamin Otálora's tale in "The Dead Man"; Christopher Dewey's tale in "The Man on the Threshold").  Without too much mental gymnastics, one could truthfully describe Borges as a novelist who, instead of having an oeuvre, merely has a commentary on his own imaginary oeuvre.

By his own account, Bolaño loved Borges.  In The New York Review of Books, Francisco Goldman quotes Bolaño saying, "I could live under a table reading Borges." 

Knowing of Bolaño's reverence for Borges, and now having read some of Borges' work, I'm inclined to see the protagonist of Bolaño's novel, 2666, the enigmatic writer, Benno von Archimboldi (a/k/a Hans Reiter), as a Borges-like figure.  Like Borges, von Archimboldi is a man with a split identity (see Borges' short story, "Borges and I"); like Borges, von Archimboldi is withdrawn from the world; like Borges, von Archimboldi writes imaginary novels; like Borges, others (especially critics and criminals) see von Archimboldi as a figure of power and redemption; and like Borges, von Archimboldi hasn't won the Nobel Prize.

Goldman interestingly cites Bolaño's observation that, "[his] life . . . has been infinitely more savage than Borges's."  Benno von Archimboldi's life, however, has seen its share of savagery.  Perhaps, in Benno von Archimboldi, Bolaño was offering his mentor - who'd always been cagey about his identity as "Borges" - another identity, one less bookish and less focused on the 19th century, one more infused with the lessons that Bolaño had learned from his own life.  In Bolaño's hands, Borges could be everything he wasn't in life: a physical presence, a soldier, a killer, a lover - everything, in fact, but a writer with an oeuvre of novels. 

Even a novelist with an extensive oeuvre like Bolaño's, it seems, has some limits.   

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from Maud Newton; image of Jorge Luis Borges from Wikipedia

Borges on Jews

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I didn't know what to make of what Borges makes of Jews.  My first impressions did not accord with the assessment of academic Evelyn Fishburn, who wrote,

Borges' philosemitism is not at issue here: his credentials in this respect must satisfy all but the most paranoid.

Well call me paranoid.

Philosemitism didn't occur to me when I read the following description of "Aaron Loewenthal" in Borges' short story, "Emma Zunz" (from his 1949 collection, The Aleph):

Aaron Loewenthal was in the eyes of all an upright man; in those of his few closest acquaintances, a miser. . . . The year before, he had decorously grieved the unexpected death of his wife - a Gauss! who'd brought him an excellent dowry! - but money was his true passion.  With secret shame, he knew he was not as good at earning it as at holding on to it.  He was quite religious; he believed he had a secret pact with the Lord - in return for prayers and devotions, he was exempted from doing good works.
Fishburn doesn't quote this rigidly stereotypical character description in her discussion of "Emma Zunz," but she does say:

The story is placed almost entirely within the confines of the Jewish world of Buenos Aires around the year 1922 and includes scenes of embezzlement, prostitution, lies, betrayal and cold-blooded, premeditated murder, thus opening up the social and moral range of Borges' Jewish imaginary.
"Thus opening up the social and moral range of Borges' Jewish imaginary"?  Is Fishburn somehow suggesting that Borges is immune to common anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews that cast them as embezzlers, liars, betrayers, cold-blooded premeditated murderers (blood of Christian children in the Passover matzoh), etc.?  Without in any way suggesting that depictions of Jews should be immune from the full range of human behavior in which they (and all groups of humans) engage, I can't see anything laudatory about Borges descending to depict Jews consistently with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

That said, I do not think Borges is anti-Semitic.  As J.M. Coetzee writes of Borges in The New York Review of Books,

Englishness was one part of Borges's self-fashioning, Jewishness another. He invoked a rather hypothetical Sephardic strain on his mother's side to explain his interest in the Kabbalah, and, more interestingly, to present himself as an outsider to Western culture, with an outsider's freedom to criticize and innovate. 
Much as Borges might have been an example of the much-loved Jewish stereotype of the "self-hating Jew," much more likely (in my opinion) is that he extended to Judaism the same openness, curiosity and delight that he obviously shows in Islam and other traditions of long lineage in which he found interesting engagement with large questions of theology, time, existence and reality.

Rather than being an expression of anti-Semitism, I think Aaron Loewenthal is simply a function of Borges' generally weak skills at characterization.  In Borges' quick sketches, readers find many characters capable of grand action and exhilarating thinking, but very little in the way of deep psychological and emotional portrayals.  (Indeed, Fishburn votes for Emma Zunz herself as being Borges' most fully fleshed-out character: "his only moderately developed character is female; also Jewish, manipulative and murderous; and uniquely pitiable").  This being the case, I think that when Borges reached for a character description of Aaron Loewenthal, he defaulted to the "Jewish miser" stereotype.  So ingrained was this stereotype into the world in which Borges lived that his invocation of its broad form may have seemed "right" to him as a description of a Jew.  I doubt seriously that Borges even recognized in Aaron Loewenthal an anti-Semitic stereotype.

All the same, whether Borges was philosemitic or merely interested in Kabbalah (and even if he was prey to the anti-Semitic stereotypes of his day), I don't recognize myself, as a Jew, or as a Jewish woman, in Borges.  What Borges makes of Jews, however thought-worthy, doesn't strike me as Jewish.

(Image of Borges' El Aleph from Antiqbook.com)

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