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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.
(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)

Jorge Luis Borges, book blogger

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Jorge_Luis_Borges.jpgExplaining why he'd never written a novel, Jorge Luis Borges remarked,

It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.
Not just books, or imaginary books, either.  Borges is a compulsive summarizer and commentator.  No text, real or imagined, seems too short to merit this treatment.  He opens his six-page story, "The Dead Man," by saying, "I do not know the full details of [Benjamin Otálora's] adventure; when I am apprised of them, I will correct and expand these pages.  For now, this summary may be instructive."

Nor does he restrict his commentary to a sentence here and there.  More than half of his barely five-page page, "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," is commentary on an anecdote about a barbarian who switched sides while sacking Rome.  And while Borges' commentary constitutes the story in the foregoing example, his commentary seems to reverse the meaning of the story in the case of "Averröes' Search," transforming the tale from one of discovery into one of failure.

Borges offers a potential rationale for his inveterate commenting in, "The Immortal," at the end of which he appends a "postcript" [sic] to a text allegedly slipped into the last volume of Pope's Iliad.  Acknowledging that the text's veracity has been questioned because it quotes or plagiarizes from other texts, Borges remarks:

To my way of thinking, that conclusion is unacceptable.  As the end approaches, wrote Cartaphilus [the author of the text found in Pope's Iliad], there are no longer any images from memory - there are only words.  Words, words, words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men - those were the alms left him by the hours and the centuries.
What else is commentary but "words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men"?  To quote the words of other men (or the imagined words of other men) and "mutilate" them by placing them in another context, arguing with them, juxtaposing them against other words, complicating their meaning, burnishing or adding to their facets, is to engage in the act of commentary.  And for Borges, the raw materials for that commentary - the words - were "the alms left him by the hours and the centuries": his inheritance from history.

At this juncture, I'd like to offer my commentary on Borges' habit of commenting: his impulse is not so much like that of a fiction writer, but of a blogger.  Fiction writers are interested in stories: plots and characters.  Borges is interested in analysis.  Borges - because he's Borges - manages to make stories out of analysis, but his success doesn't transform his approach from one of a commentator into one of a fiction writer.  Nor does that fact that Borges is sometimes commenting on or analyzing imaged texts make his methodology suitable for fiction: just as a law student arguing a moot court case is practicing legal techniques, not fiction writing, so Borges is acting the part of commentator, not author.  

As Rivka Galchen says in her New York Times essay on Borges,

he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading. . . . To love a text: isn't that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?
"[W]riting . . . [as an] intensely engaged way[] of reading" - that's why I blog about books.  When I finish a book, I want to deepen, heighten, round-out and complete the experience by writing about it.  "[H]elplessly casting about for something to say in return" to a book is a good description of my blog.   

In this light, Borges' stunning innovation is that he appears to have invented book blogging before blogs existed.  Not that this technological gap really matters.  If Cartaphilus can chat with Homer eleven hundred years after he wrote the Odyssey, then Borges can blog before blogs - or the Internet, or even personal computers - were invented.  In my analysis, Borges' stories, properly understood and contextualized, are blog posts.  Likewise, Borges' books are compilations of his posts - he may be the world's first blogger to have landed a publishing contract.  

And in this post, I am imagining Borges' blog and (imaginarily) hyper-linking to it.  Check it out, folks: once you read his posts, you'll want to leave a comment.

(Image of Jorge Luis Borges from The New York Times

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Immortal category.

The Heroine is the previous category.

The Man on the Threshold is the next category.



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