A New Book from Jorge Luis Borges (sort of)

I’ve been getting drawn into A Course on English Literature in spite of myself.  The book is a transcription of lectures given by Borges in 1966, published in Spanish in 2000, and released in English by New Directions last year.  Borges died in 1986, but I think it will be a long time before readers of English have access to all of his works, or even get a real sense of them.  (I do read Spanish, but I haven’t read Borges much in the original.  In Argentina I was daunted by the many editions of his work and by the appearance of a colossal (Boswellian?) memoir by his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares.)

I may be giving myself too much credit but I think there is something essentially hard to grasp about Borges’ work.  I began to read the short stories more than ten years ago.  More recently I’ve read a small number of his essays.  Along the way I picked up This Craft of Verse (a series of lectures given at Harvard) and Seven Nights.  Still, every time I pick up one of these books, I find myself lost, apart from a very few really iconic stories: “The Library of Babel”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “The Aleph”, “Funes the Memorious”, “Pierre Menard”, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.  The stories, reviews, and essays all blend together.  I actually read a good bit of Seven Nights, a book of interviews, without realizing I had read it years before under a different title.  That may not sound like praise, but it was the book’s evocation of the streets of Buenos Aires, of Borges learning Italian by reading Dante on the streetcars, that sent me to Argentina.

The main reason I was skeptical of A Course on English Literature is that it seemed likely to cover a lot of the same ground as This Craft of Verse.  While it’s true that the section on Anglo Saxon poetry in the new book uses many of the examples already familiar to me (he must have been very fond of “whale road” and maere tungol, “that famous star”), A Course is more thorough and I’m finding a lot that’s worthwhile.  The comparison of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas with Candide is really interesting.  And he’s actually making me want to read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which is saying something.

I wish, of course, that I could say just what it is that makes Borges’ work at once beguiling and ungraspable.  It has something to do with his way with allusion.  His stories teem with great works and authors.  Certainly his famous self effacement could be a way of handling a technique that usually has the subtlety of a blunderbuss, but it also leaves one wondering what, if anything, has been said.  I still recommend This Craft of Verse and I count Borges as a major, though in some ways dubious intellectual influence.

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Memory and Mathematics

I put a weak finish on 2013, reading wise.  I’ve been grinding away at grueling, plotless books for long enough that it’s hard to remember why I started.  I put aside a biography of Borges, in Spanish, that I started a while ago.  I never intended to read it at one go, but it still hangs over me.  Another is the book on Shakespeare’s language: mostly it makes me wish I were reading the plays, though I think it may prove worthwhile.

Finally, there was Philosophies of Mathematics.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  My college math had a foundational, philosophical bent, and since then I’ve continued to dabble in it.  I don’t really sympathize with fretting over whether math is created or discovered, how we apply it to nature and so forth.  I’m more interested in the constructions and the proofs that crop up in these books.  (Incidentally, it’s observed that Borges, while no mathematician, had his own taste in mathematics.  So maybe it’s not as sorry as it sounds.)

I like to believe I’ve learned a few mathematical habits of thinking.  One idea that comes up often is that of one-to-one correspondence of collections of things, or sets.  When two sets can be matched up one-to-one (like having a right shoe to go with every left shoe in your closet and vice versa) you say you have the same number.  That the correspondence exists is more important, maybe, than exactly what number you have.  This idea leads in short order to fascinating demonstrations about the different sizes of infinity.  It also informs my personal notion (I don’t remember if I might have read it somewhere) of what a number is, which I muse on when others seem to get to bogged down in the ontological status of mathematics, or the being of numbers.  Numbers are just meaningless words that we recite when we wish to compare sets of objects.  We learn numbers as children by counting along with others, the same way we learn other songs.  If you remember the song the right way every time, you can establish a meaningful correspondence between sets.  So how do we learn the song?

A couple of years ago I read Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer.  It’s a popular history of mnemonics, with lots of amusing stories about various competitive memorizers, prodigies and a fair amount on their actual techniques.  At least one of them actually worked: By constructing a memory palace based on my old elementary school and an off the cuff list of strange images involving friends and acquaintances, I was able, with a couple hours of practice, to memorize the order of a deck of cards.  Once I got used to it I could do it in a few minutes.

Of course this amazing new skill didn’t turn into much of anything.  I’ve memorized a fair amount of poetry and I’m not bad at geography, either, but I do it by rote, and if there’s much more to it than that, I don’t know what it is.  I certainly helps if what I’m memorizing is beautiful or otherwise interesting.  Maybe when the limitations of my current method become apparent, I’ll turn again to the memory palace.  I’m interested in how other people commit things to memory and otherwise organize their thought.  Has philosophy, or the study of mathematics or some other field, changed the way you think, or do you just bang it out?

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123

Memorization has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand it gives me something to think about in odd moments and sometimes rewards me with a sudden insight; on the other, I think I miss out on the context that comes from a straight reading.  The other day I realized I don’t really get Sonnet 123.

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
Thy pyramids, built up with newer might,
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange.
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy, 
Not wond’ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

As I recall, I was attracted to this sonnet for two reasons.  One was the obvious echo of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I think this reaches for or implies something else I was thinking about at the time, from Lao Tsu, “Without going outside, you may know the whole world.”*  The second reason was that I thought it might be the inspiration of one of will-o’-the-wisps of meaning glimpsed in the random pages of Borges’ Library of Babel, the phrase “O Time thy pyramids”.

What’s odd about this sonnet?  It’s one of those I’ve remarked on before, that has little conspicuously attractive imagery.  Then, between body and couplet (often an interesting transition), the poem switches from largely impersonal (the speaker may start out “I” but comes back to “we”) theorizing on history to strident declaration.  Time in this sonnet is not just the ragged hand of winter defacing the poet’s love (Sonnet 6), but a subtler problem.  In fact, I really think this poem is about something like what I have called “historical imagination”, the way knowledge of history informs our everyday thinking.  I’d like to think that, but I just don’t know what it’s really saying.  Some foolish people see a thing for the first time and think it’s the first time it’s ever happened.  They must not be students of history.  The speaker is too wise for that.  That’s the second quatrain.  But then he would also defy history’s lying records.  So where does that leave him?  With just that bold vow, I suppose.  Is it a convincing renunciation?

There are other sonnets on time, of course, though none quite like this one.  I thought of “When in the chronicle of wasted time,” (106) with which I am familiar enough, but realized on looking back over the sonnets that I had totally forgotten about the one right after 123 that starts

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfathered…
It’s tremendous.  I still have a lot to think about.
 

* Tao Te Ching 47, trs. Feng & English

Borges Warning

My roommate and I were discussing the ups and downs of seminars the other day and I joked that if I ever go back to school, I’m going to make sure that in every class and every discussion, no matter what the subject is, I mention “The Library of Babel”.  Somebody has to do this, and as it is I’ve got a problem with taking myself too seriously.

 

It really is a story I find myself coming back to fairly often and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people find a whiff of crankiness about it.  The story describes a library of hexagonal rooms containing every possible book, meaning all combinations (most of them gibberish) of a certain number of specified letters.  Such a library can easily be calculated to be larger than our universe.  It is also inhabited by people known as Librarians.  When I first sat down to write a short post, just an introduction or an advertisement of my interest, I soon found myself in difficulties.  I find the library and the hopes and sufferings of its inhabitants enormously seductive.  I’m drawn to just dream about the books that are there and also to try to pick apart and analyze the notion of such a library.

 

As for books, I suppose everyone would have personal favorites (please share in the comments).  Under the right circumstances, I’d love sneer, “The refutation of your argument exists in the Library of Babel.”  Then there are the lost and unwritten books:  Borges mentions Aeschylus’ Egyptians; I would like to run across the second and third volumes of The Brothers Karamazov, and of course the book on comedy from Aristotle’s Poetics.  Borges alludes to a wilder dream of more metaphysical import: The Vindications, books of wisdom that would explain and justify an individual’s place in the cosmos.  That possibility sent the Librarians into ecstasies and the search plunged them into suicidal despair.

 

But of the urge to fantasize and the urge to pick apart fantasies, which is stronger? There are issues beyond the sheer improbability of ever coming across a sensible page.  Consider the size of the books, and the claim that the Library contains everything that can be expressed.  The library is large, but is there any  real difference between one that contains every million-odd character book and one that contains every ten-thousand character essay?  Every fourteen line poem?  Obviously, to contain any very large narrative, multiple volumes would be needed, and then the judgment of the reader would also be needed to distinguish which is the correct successor.  Even a computer keyboard can be considered a Library of Babel for one character books, but the proportion of judgment required by the reader is then very high.  Have I really just gone to this trouble to discover that books need to have context and readers should be discerning?

 

Borges knows all this of course.  In the essay “The Total Library” he insists more clearly on the vanity of this dream, calling up the image of a “delirious god” in words very similar to those put in the mouth of a heretic in the Library of Babel.  He calls it a “horror”, and in another essay, “Catalogue of the Exhibition Books from Spain”, the master of infinity and the labyrinth admits to having always pictured heaven as a library “fit for a man” and containing “not too many” books.

 

I am tempted to say that the most interesting question about the Library of Babel is which books it does not contain.  I do not believe that the Vindications necessarily exist (Irredeemable crimes are at least theological possibilities, if not a theological commonplace, yes?); I also think that many books we might think are less fantastical also do not exist.  I’ve had the sense many times that a book I read was not quite the one I wanted to read, and it finally occurred to me to wonder whether the experience I desired was even possible.  The intelligible printed word may be too rigorous for many notions.  What is quite conceivable to us in some unclear way may be quite inconsistent with what we regard as obvious truths, or even with itself.  This state of affairs seems unexceptionable in mathematics: I doubt that mathematicians would search the Library for a proof of the parallel postulate.  On the other hand, it seems incongruous or intolerable when it is applied to philosophy and literature, but I wonder if it is nonetheless necessary.

 

As I suggested above, Borges’ view of the Library is not a cheerful one, but I don’t think he would go quite as far as I do in doubting the scope of the Library.  Despite everything, he seems to insist, both in “The Library  of Babel” and in “The Total Library”, on the possibility of meaningful and wondrous texts among the “millions of meaningless cacophonies”. I don’t know what gives him the confidence, but the allure of the result is undeniable.