I labour upwards into futurity.
William Blake?, 1796
31 August 2006
Borges Revisited (8):
Still More Poems
Note: The most current and comprehensive anthology of Borges' poetry
in English is:
Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman New York:
Poems of interest to me include:
[from The Unending Rose], translation by Willis Barnstone,
Compare to first poem on Spinoza, translation
by Willis Barnstone p. 229. See also Spinoza,
translation by Richard Howard, César Rennert; and Spanish
París, 1856 [from The Self and the Other],
translation by Willis Barnstone, p. 213. [In
Spanish, O.C., p. 914.] Homage to Heinrich Heine.
Descartes, translation by Alastair Reed, p. 423.
Melville, p. 377 [further information not at hand.]
Earlier collections in English and Borges' poetry in Spanish are
listed at The
Garden of Forking Paths. Several of Borges' other volumes in
English translation contain poems.
See entry below for Borges poems in English. For poems online in
Spanish see Jorge
Luis Borges: MENÚ DE POEMAS.
For other links see my earlier entries Borges (2).
Note that many of Borges' poems embody his characteristic themes,
e.g. potentially infinite regress of dreams and dreamers.
[> Borges (9)]
29 August 2006
Borges Revisited (7):
More Poems Online
Some more poems online I forgot to add to my previous lists of
Jorge Luis Borges - All poems of Jorge Luis Borges (PoemHunter.com)
[> Borges (8)]
29 August 2006
Borges Revisited (6):
Here I will highlight fictional pieces of Borges of
interest not mentioned in previous entries, using Andrew Hurley's
translation of Borges' Collected Fictions (New York: Viking,
1998) as a base. Many of these stories can be found in other Borges
volumes as well.
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is among the
top half dozen of Borges' stories, perhaps even the most important.
Perhaps I will discuss it in a future entry.
The Circular Ruins embodies the themes of duplication,
reflection and regress, and the reversal of dream and reality. A
man dreams a son, and then worries whether his son will one day
discover the nature of his real existence, but the man, facing death,
learns that he too is someone else's dream.
The Lottery in Babylon takes the premise of
doling out societal rewards and publishments by means of chance
to its logical conclusion.
The Library of Babel is the universe for its
inhabitants, who develop entire religions, philosophies, sciences,
and schools of thought in the attempt to ascertain its laws, patterns
The Garden of Forking Paths combines espionage,
assassination, and the nature of time in a World War II setting.
I once saw Three Versions of Judas performed
as a play. I was intrigued by the permutations of heresy therein.
The above stories and several others cited elsewhere
were published in Ficciones (1944), the collection
concentrating Borges' most important stories.
The Aleph (1949) contains a number of
other of Borges' most celebrated stories. I will mention a few of
the most philosophically intriguing not already mentioned elsewhere.
The Immortal explores the logic of immortality
showing it to be a horror. There is also the notion of the indistinguishibility
of memories as one's lifeline stretches to infinity. And the familiar
Borgesian theme of transgression:
This City [of the
Immortals], I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence,
the mere fact of its having enduredpollutes the past and
the future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this
City endures, no one in the world can ever be happy or courageous.
[188, author's italics]
The Theologians begins with the heresy of circular
time and the sect founded on that notion. The idea of the eternal
repetition of all acts engenders unusual theological consequences
The Aleph is another story of a dangerous talismanic
object. This story involves death, poetry, and the Aleph"one
of the points in space that contain all points." The narrator
gets to see the Aleph in the corner of a basement, and thus gets
to see all the places in the world at once, which, until forgetfulness
once again sets in, causes him to be indifferent to all further
The Maker (1960) includes a one-paragraph
piece called On Exactitude in Science. It is about a map
as large as the territory it represents, discarded by the descendants
of the cartographers who created it, only the remains of which can
yet be found in the deserts.
In the foreword to Brodie's Report (1970)
Borges outlines his literary and political views, e.g.
My convictions with respect to political matters
are well known; I have joined the Conservative Party (which act
is a form of skepticism), and no one has ever called me a Communist,
a nationalist, an anti-Semite, or a supporter of Hormiga Negra
or of Rosas. I believe that in time we will have reached the point
where we will deserve to be free of government.
The most interesting story from that collection is
Brodie's Report, based on a 'memoir' of contact with a strange
tribe dubbed the Yahoos. Noteworthy here is the Yahoos' language.
Their language is complex, and resembles none
other that I know. One cannot speak of "parts of speech,"
as there are no sentences. Each monosyllabic word corresponds
to a general idea, which is defined by its context or by facial
expressions. The word nrz, for example, suggests a dispersion
or spots of one kind or another: it may mean the starry sky, a
leopard, a flock of birds, smallpox, something splattered with
water or mud, the act of scattering, or the flight that follows
a defeat. Hrl, on the other hand, indicates that which
is compact, dense, or tightly squeezed together; it may mean the
tribe, the trunk of a tree, a stone, a pile of rocks, the act
of piling them up, a meeting of the four witch doctors, sexual
congress, or a forest. Pronounced in another way, or with other
facial expressions, it may mean the opposite. We should not be
overly surprised at this: in our own tongue, the verb to cleave
means to rend and to adhere. Of course, there are no sentences,
even incomplete ones.
The intellectual power of abstraction demanded
by such a language suggests to me that the Yahoos, in spite of
their barbarity, are not a primitive people but a degenerate one.
This conjecture is confirmed by inscriptions which I have discovered
up on the tableland. The characters employed in these inscriptions,
resembling the runes that our own forebears carved, can no longer
be deciphered by the tribe; it is as though the tribe had forgotten
the written language and retained only the spoken one. 
There are two memorable stories in Borges' last collection of fiction,
Shakespeare's Memory. The story Shakespeare's
Memory features a German Shakespeare scholar who acquires Shakespeare
from another fellow who acquired it from a dying soldier in World
War I. The narrator accepts Shakespeare's memory, and is told that
it will take awhile for him to remember things. Bits and pieces
of Shakespeare's memory come to him at various times, but the experience
is not what he had hoped to learn as a curious scholar. He realizes
that memory cannot be forced, it must be activated or stimulated
so that memories come forth; even Shaespeare did not have full,
deliberate access to his own memory. Eventually the narrator is
giddily in possession of Shakespeare's memory. He also acquires
a vague feeling of guiltShakespeare's guilt. He realizes that
the life is not the work, and that part of him has become Shakespeare
the man not the poet. He also realizes that he lacks the writing
talent to write a biographyof Shakespeare, or of himself. The gist
of transmuting thought and experience into literature remains a
mystery, and the presence of Shakespeare becomes a curse not a joy.
The narrator becomes unfocused, and with time the burden of two
memories is too much.
The wish of all things, Spinoza says, is to continue
to be what they are. The stone wishes to be stone, the tiger,
tigerand I wanted to be Hermann Sörgel again. 
He picks up a phone book to pick out a number at random,
and finds someone at the other end of the line to accept Shakespeare's
I had invented exercises to awaken the antique
memory; I had now to seek others to erase it. One of many was
the study of the mythology of William Blake, that rebellious disciple
of Swedenborg. I found it to be less complex than merely complicated.
Only Bach could compete with Shakespeare. At the end
the narrator is back to his own triviliaties, but occasionally unsettling,
fleeting memories come to him.
This is the final story of the volume.
The other most striking story
in this final collection is Blue Tigers. The tiger is a familiar
figure in Borges' work; he immediately mentions Blake. The narrator
is a logician and teaches Spinoza. His love of tigers draws him
to check out the existence of a blue tiger reported in the news,
and so he voyages to a remote Hindu village in the jungle in India.
At first the villagers are frightened by his interest, but when
they realize he is talking about the animal, they are relieved.
There are several false sightings. The villagers balk when the narrator
wishes to climb a certain mountain, so he does it by himself at
night. He doesn't find the blue tiger, but he finds some curious
stones the same blue color as the tiger of his dreams. He pockets
some of these stones, and returns to his hut. He gets a ticklish
sensation the next day when he pulls the stones out of his pocket.
He knows that the stones have somehow multiplied; there are more
there than he picked up. But he is unable to count them. Their number
keeps changing. Spinoza's axioms cannot help him. He tosses the
stones out the window. The headman of the village confronts him,
knowing that the stones come from the mountain and not the village,
but out of fear he refuses to touch them. The narrator picks them
up, to the astonishment of the villagers.
Upon reflection, he realizes that the existence of
fantastic beings is a relative triviliaty; but a violation of the
laws of logic and mathematics is unthinkable (500). His dreams exemplify
his fear that God is irrational. As the possessor of the 'blue tigers',
as the stones are dubbed by the villagers, he becomes a somewhat
sacred though fearful figure to them. He returns home, but he cannot
get any piece, obsessed by these miraculous stones, and begins to
shun his friends and performs experiments on the stones. Their mysterious
appearances and disappearances defy the laws of mathematics, but
the narrator persists in seeking out order in these aberrant occurrences.
His elaborate statistical record-keeping does not help, as the standard
arithmetical operations do not apply. As he handles 'the stones
that destroyed the science of mathematics' he thinks of ancient
Greek ciphers originating in stones and the meaning of the word
'calculus'. The problem proves insoluble, and the stones become
a constant torment. "I came to fear that they would contaminate
other thingsparticularly the fingers that insisted upon handling
After a sleepless night, he enters a mosque and on
impulse prays to Allah to be relieved of his burden. A beggar appears,
and insists on being given all the stones, not just one. The narrator
drops the whole uncountable pile into the beggar's hand, after warning
him that "my alms may be a curse." The beggar is not concerned,
for he declares himself a sinner:
I do not yet know what your gift to me is, but
mine to you is an awesome one. You may keep your days and nights,
and keep wisdom, habits, the world." 
This is one of Borges' last stories, and it recapitulates
almost off of his constant themes, but rather than being stale,
it is exceptional. The contrast between common superstition (the
blue tiger) and this far more disturbing phenomenon (blue tigers)
is brilliant. The overworked Borgesian theme of metaphysical anxiety
linked to a talismanic object, transgression of the order of things,
and an intolerable violation of rationality, is fabulized in a novel
fashion. What an excellent way for the master to wrap up his career.
[> Borges (7)]
[> Borges (5)]
28 August 2006
I Dream Too Much
The desire of Man being Infinite the possession
is Infinite & himself Infinite William Blake,
is No Natural Religion
Though I had no idea until now, this is actually the title of a
by Jerome Kern and a film. My introduction to this song was
at an incredibly intense concert by the Sun Ra Arkestra at
the Kilimanjaro in Washington DC at the end of the 1980s. As far
I can determine, Sun Ra's only officially released recording of
this song is on the album Reflections
in Blue (1986 / 1993).
For my experience of Sun Ra, see:
The Jazz Avant-Garde,
Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians
For other remarks on Sun Ra, see my essays:
The Theory & Practice
of John Coltrane
William Blake, and the '60s According to Shamoon Zamir
In my annotations to 'Anthony Braxton:
The Third Millennial Interview with Mike Heffley': Extracts, with
Commentary, I remark:
I hope that Braxton is aware of how different
he, a Chicagoan, is from Sun Ra, who was a product of the deep
South, and that the mystical perspective does not block his understanding
of the process of modernization.
Sun Ra web site:
Sun Ra and the Arkestra
See also this revealing interview:
Ra- Space is the Place: INTERVIEW WITH JOHN F. SZWED
by Billy Bob Hargus (August 1997)
Szwed is the author of the definitive (to date) biography of Sun
Ra. The flavor of Ra's reactionary political views can be tasted
in this interview.
I saw Sun Ra more than once in Washington, more than once even
at the Kilimanjaro (I think). All of my memories pertain (I think)
to the aforementioned concert. I did not touch one molecule of any
intoxicating substance; the music alone put me into a trance for
the next day or two. I had an amusing conversation with Pat Patrick
while peeing next to him in the men's room. The Arkestra, in addition
to repertoire more familiar to me, performed some old tunes from
the big band era, including a song featuring the words 'let's go
slumming', and a song I did not know was an old standard'I
Dream Too Much'. Something about the musicwistful I think
it wascombined with the title (the only lyric I retained)
haunted me. The feeling I got had nothing to do with male-female
romance; it was something fundamentally existential, aspiration
for the unbounded. Yeah, I'm out there, babyI dream too much.
[> The Jazz Avant-Garde
[> The Jazz Avant-Garde
(2): Music and the Avant Garde]
25 August 2006
Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke Archive for poems, quotes, and bibliography.
See Rainer Maria Rilke on Being
and the Transitory for one of my favorite quotes.
24 August 2006
How Small We Are, How Little We Know
One of my all-time favorite films seems to be largely forgotten;
it has never been released on video (though unofficial recordings
exist) and no longer shows up on network television like it used
to: The Adding
Machine (1969), starring Milo O'Shea and Phyllis Diller,
based on the play
Ever since I first saw this film on television I'm been haunted
by the closing song, which rounds out the satirical existential
theme. I've discovered I'm not the only one so moved: Uncle
Phaedrus answered a query from another interested party. The
title of the song remains unknown, and a recording cannot be found.
Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television and screenonline
credit The Adding Machine theme to Charlie Chaplin. Josef
Locke wrote and recorded (Decca 1969 and on an at least one album
[now on CD], The World of Josef Locke Today) a song titled
"How Small We Are, How Little We Know." Robert Goulet
recorded a song with this title (Both Sides Now, 1969). There
is also a recording by the Johnny Mann Singers (LST7587). There
is also a song with this title by Earl Wilson. Any relation of these
songs to one another and to The Adding Machine theme remains
unknown to me. Phaedrus found these song lyrics, untitled and uncredited,
on a now-vanished web site. I reproduce the lyrics below and thank
Phaedrus for his legwork. I don't recall all the lyrics of the song,
but I remember enough to identify this as The Adding Machine
closing theme. I remember the simple yet plaintive melody, and
I have sung it from time to time.
We laugh, we cry,
We live, we die,
and when we're gone
the world goes on.
We love, we hate,
We learn too late
how small we are,
how little we know
We hear, we touch,
we talk too much
of things we have
no knowledge of.
We see, we feel,
yet can't conceal
how small we are,
how little we know.
See how the time
moves swiftly by,
we don't know how,
we don't know why.
We reach so high
and fall so low
the more we learn,
the less we know.
Too soon the time
to go will come,
too late the will
to carry on.
And so we leave,
too much undone,
how small we are,
how little we know.
24 August 2006
Constantin Brunner (1)
In my essay William Blake in the
Universe of Knowledge: Philosophy, Genres, & Critical Method,
I related my experience of reading a book several years previously:
I thought objective idealism was nonsense, and
I could not understand what made it plausible, and then I read
an obscure book called The Philosophy of Spinoza and Brunner
by Walter Bernard (New York: Spinoza Institute of America, 1934),
which set it all out brilliantly (including the superiority of
Hegel to Kant), and once I gained a glimmer of the precious secrets
of objective idealism, I laughed and laughed! How exquisitely
My memory of how I became acquainted with Constantin Brunner's
thought is vague, but it is likely that I learned about him via
one of the books of the Chicago Surrealists, possibly Arsenal
His major work in English translation is: Science, Spirit, Superstition:
A New Enquiry into Human Thought. London: Allen & Unwin,
In January 2005 I was cited in the constantinbrunner.info
blog by its editor, Barrett Pashak. Apparently, the acquaintance
of a North American with Brunner's work is a rarity.
Note also a series of exchanges about Brunner, me and my Autodidact
Project on William F. Vallicella's Maverick
Note the home
page for the Brunner site. A good place to begin an overview
of Brunner's perspective is the Constantin
The Brunner extracts on the site did not thrill me. The extracts
Tyranny of Hate give very little useful information for understanding
the deadly phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Our
Christ reveals much of Brunner's way of thinking, which admits
a fair degree of nonsense. The central problem is that his metaphysical
mode of reasoning does not admit of real history.
Above all, there are two human races, differing
inwardly: the Spiritual Élite and the multitude.
The suggestion that history is to be explained metaphysically as
a conflict between the elite and the multitude is useless.
The summary of Brunner's doctrine
emphasizes that which is least useful in him. The concept of the
spiritual elite is rather sillysuperstitious in factas
superstitious as the metaphysical interpretation of history and
the place of Judaism and Christianity in itas superstitious
and ridiculous as all symbolic and spiritual (geistig) interpretations
of history (whether religious in the fundamentalist or in the liberal
sense). It explains little of how critical thought emerges out of
the mass of received ideas, among the intelligentsia as well among
the more gifted of the lower classes, and how this may be enabled
in different eras under different conditions and in different stages
of social development and scientific knowledge.
Pashak's historical explanation in Brunner
and Postmodernism suffers from the same metaphysical schematism.
Breton praised Brunner, and here is Pashak's take on Brunner
and surrealism. Of Brunner's tripartite division of the faculties,
I was originally intrigued by the concept of the Analogon,
the faculty responsible for superstitious thinking, including religion,
a travesty of the spirit, and it was the memory of this concept
that triggered this current exploration. Pashak disagrees with Breton's
interpretation. Note this striking assertion:
In art, the Analogon can only serve as a tool
for creating and understanding satire. [emphasis mine]
This induced me to wonder how this notion might apply to the work
of Jorge Luis Borges.
I also thought of Percy
Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus
Unbound, particularly the verse 'the
deep truth is imageless'.
Perhaps more could be done to illustrate the negative influence
of the Analogon, given the inability of any societyespecially
contemporary civilization in its degenerating phaseto transcend
the vorstellung it takes for its self-understanding?
Now I'm taking up Brunner's Science, Spirit, Superstition.
It is one of the cleverist systems of idealism known to man. I'm
finding it extremely objectionable. There are two aspects of Brunner's
thought I remain curious about: Spinoza and the Analogon.
Reading Review (1)]
[> My Yiddishe
23 August 2006
on Highway 61: Existentialism in America by T.H. Adamowski.
Review of: George Cotkin, Existential America.
This is a noteworthy in-depth review. I read the book almost a
year ago. It is a history of existentialist thought and sensibility
in America. I finally learned just why I should despise Kierkegaard
(his influence was entirely reactionary), and I understand better
why C.L.R. James was contemptuous of postwar American intellectuals.
Especially interesting is the chapter on the popularity of Camus
among '60s activists, and the surprisingly lesser popularity of
Sartre. These folks used the notion of 'absurdity' to propel them
to action, not to throw in the towel. (Robert Moses of Mississippi
Freedom Summer fame was inspired by Camus, among many others.) I
think a deeper analysis of the function of these ideas in relation
to social being and self-understanding is indicated.
23 August 2006
August Wilson's Cultural Perspective
If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets...But a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless;
For what would it avail to bid thee gaze
On the revolving world? What to bid speak
Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change? To these
All things are subject but eternal Love.
Shelley, "Prometheus Unbound," 2.4
It's been several years since I saw August Wilson's play "Joe
Turner's Come and Gone" on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
It was an impressive piece and it struck me that there were layers
of symbolic meaning below the surface that merited analysis. I haven't
seen anything else by Wilson except for a scene or two (on TV) from
"The Piano Lesson" (with Charles S. Dutton).
A recent discussion prompted me to look up some material on Wilson
online. I found a page of August
Wilson quotes. It doesn't give complete bibliographical references,
so I'm taking these on trust for the meantime. I find myself understanding
of many of these quotes, but others make me sad, because I think
the changing times are going to destroy the tradition Wilson sought
to preserve, for better or worse.
I cannot but be struck by how much Wilson is a product of a vanishing
generation, and that there has occurred an historical break which
has rendered much of his perspective obsolete beyond its representation
of a past now geriatric and soon to expire and so not expressive
of current reality or prospective. History will continue to be relevant,
but I don't think as living tradition. Consider these assertions:
[...] In my own work, what I hope to do is to
"place" the tradition of black American culture, to
demonstrate its ability to sustain us. We have a ground that is
specific, that is peculiarly ours, that we can stand on, which
gives us a world view, to look at the world and to comment on
it. I'm just trying to place the world of that culture on stage
and to demonstrate its existence and maybe also indicate some
directions toward which we as a people might possibly move. [...]
If there ever was a collective world view (which is always an exaggeration
but perhaps not too far afield in specific historical circumstances),
it was a product of slavery and apartheid, and I suspect it is dissolving
into a number of factions that will soon cease to reference the
same experienced reality, and I doubt it can give much guidance
for the future.
[...] "I am trying to write plays that contain
the sum total of black culture in America, and its difference
from white culture. Once you put in the daily rituals of black
life, the plays start to get richer and bigger. You're creating
a whole world in the process of telling your story, of writing
this character. Once you place him down in his environment, you
have to write about his whole philosophical approach to life.
And then you can uncover, from a black perspective, the universalities
of life." [...]
Interesting. But I don't think portraying the sum total of black
culture is possible any more, at least not since, say, 1980. There's
a generational rollover that seems to have rendered this impossible.
And this is not even to mention the nonconformists who cannot be
pigeonholed the invisible among the invisible.
[...] "I chose the blues as my aesthetic,"
Wilson told Playbill in 1996. "I don't do any research other
than listen to the blues. That tells me everything I need to know,
and I go from there. I create worlds out of the ideas and the
attitudes and the material in the blues. I think the blues are
the best literature that blacks have. It is an expression of our
people and our response to the world. I don't write about the
blues; I'm not influenced by the blues. I am the blues."
This saddens me, because the blues could not possibly tell anyone
everything they need to know and in any case it reflects earlier
times, not the present. Something has changed decisively, and I
don't believe anyone who claims that this could be true for our
time and for the future. How one bridges the gap between past
and future is a more difficult problem now that at any time in history;
it requires some deep thinking not forthcoming in a shallow society.
Furthermore, I claim that a public discourse is lacking that would
capture the depth of what must be understood about social reality
now, and furthermore, I'm guessing that nobody really cares to plumb
this depth, and that all but a handful of scattered individuals
are numbed against doing so.
The historical sea-change of the past quarter century is rendering
the cultural concerns of the baby boomers as well as the surviving
children of the Great Depression obsolete, just as it has bequeathed
a legacy of superficiality and false values to the young (not that
many of the old values weren't rotten, or pretty much the same as
the new). This historical break is more complete than any in American
history, perhaps more so than even the gap between the Depression
generation and the Boomers. I'm one who believes in the importance
of history, but historical consciousness is neither nostalgia nor
tradition, and its relationship to identity formation in this day
and age is tenuous.
Speaking of which, I want to quote the objectionable elements of
Wilson's cultural ideology described in Frederick
August Kittel's biography.
He told the Chicago Tribune that "by not
developing their own tradition, a more African response to the
world, [African Americans] lost their sense of identity."
This Afrocentric nonsense is not going to help anybody. Identity
is a product of history, not cultural essences. But this is worse:
Joe Turner expresses Wilson's belief that blacks
would have been stronger if they had not migrated from country
to city, since they came from agrarian roots in Africa.
This is horse*@#%! Richard Wright (and all Northerners) would beg
to differ. I've heard comparable sentiments expressed by middle
class Southern blacks (the women being the most insufferable) who
are as proud of being Southerners as any Confederate-flag-flying
cracker. On the irreconcilable hostility between North and South,
I take the side of the North and urbanism against reactionary rural
Historical consciousness is something else altogether than traditionalism
(whether it be of a strictly Afro-American or of an Afrocentric
nature) and it is vital for very different reasons than for brainwashing
people with an ersatz identity that no longer fits their reality.
23 August 2006
Borges Revisited (5)
The Book of Sand (continued)
"The Mirror and the Mask" embodies a common
Borgesian theme: the sense of transgression in the act of creation
and the quest for perfection. There is a dialogue between the King
of Ireland and his court poet. The poet has managed to compose the
perfect ode but is afraid to recite it. The king urges him to do
The bard recited the poem. It consisted of a
Not venturing to repeat it aloud, the poet and
his king savored it as if it were a secret prayer or a blasphemy.
The king was as awestricken and overcome as the bard. The two
looked at each other, very pale.
And further on, the Bard says:
"[. . .] I felt I had committed a sin, perhaps
one the Holy Ghost does not forgive."
"The one we two now share, the king said
in a whisper. "The sin of having known Beauty, which is a
sin forbidden to men. Now it behooves us to expiate it. [. . .]"
Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon
leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering
the length and breadth of Irelandwhich was once his kingdomand
that he has never repeated the poem. (79)
The king's fate reminds me of don Alejandro Glencoe selling off
his ranch in "The Congress".
"Undr" contains familiar Borgesian ingredientsan
obscure ms, exotic lore, a chance encounter, a background of violence,
a Nordic setting, a dagger, and the perfect song and the perfect
lyric. Saved from death by a fello poet after hearing the Word,
the narrator undergoes many adventures, briefly summarized, and
he meets up with the bard many years later. The bard picks up his
harp, utters one word'undr', meaning 'wonder', and evokes
the narrator's lifetime of memories.
"Utopia of a Tired Man" is another of those weird chance
encounters, this time with a man who recounts a strange utopian
vision. Some peculiar Borgesisms:
"[. . .] Facts matter to no one anymore.
They are mere points of departure for invention and reasoning.
In our schools we are taught doubt adn teh art of forgetting
above all, the forgetting of what is personal and local. We live
in time, which is successive, but we try to live sub specie aeternitatis.
Of the past we retain a few names, which language tends to lose.
We shun pointless details. We have neither dates nor history.
Nor have we statistics. [. . .]" (91)
The stranger, recounting his past, refers to nations as 'collective
ghosts' and 'platonic entities' (92). Politicians and bureaucrats
and publications were considered real, supplanting the realities
they represented. "Esse est percipi (to be is to be
photographed) was the beginning, middle, and end of our singular
idea of the world." The stranger continues to recount his current
utopic existence, which ends with the voluntary cessation of life.
"The Disk" is Odin's Disk, a one-sided disk object by
the narrator, who is willing to kill for it. This is a constant
theme of Borgesa chance encounter, a talismanic object that
upsets the order of the universe.
"The Book of Sand" is the second most compelling story
in the book, exceeded only by "The Congress." The narrator
possesses a collection of rare Bibles and is willing to make a trade
with a caller who has brought him The Book of Sand, a strange
holy book that has an infinite number of pages. Once acquiring the
book, the narrator becomes obsessed with it, becomes a hermit and
shuts out the outside world. The book becomes a nightmare'monstrous',
he calls it.
I felt that the book was a nightmarish object,
an obscene thing that affronted and tainted reality itself. (122)
He is afraid of the possible consequences of burning an infinite
book, so he hides it deep within the Argentine National Library.
[> Borges (6)]
15 August 2006
Borges Revisited (4)
The Book of Sand
Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: Dutton, 1977.
Originally published as El libro de arena in 1975.
The most important story is this collection, and one of Borges'
most important works, is, without doubt, "The
Congress." I have just written a preliminary analysis and
On The Congress
by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions
Of the other stories in the book, a snippet of dialogue
in "The Other" supplies the key to Borges' world view.
"The Night of the Gifts" begins with Borges' customary
It was many years ago in the old Confitería
del Águila, on Florida Street up around Piedad, that we
heard this story. The problem of knowledge was being discussed.
Someone invoked the platonic theory that we have already seen
everything in a previous world, so that to know is to know again.
My father, I believe, said that Bacon had written that if to learn
is to remember, not to know is in fact to have forgotten. Another
person, a man getting on in years, who was probably a bit lost
in metaphysics, decided to enter in. Speaking slowly and deliberately,
this is what he told us:
Frankly, I don't understand all this talk of
platonic archetypes. Nobody remembers the first time he saw the
color yellow or black, or the first time he tasted a certain fruitmaybe
because he was small then and had no way of knowing he was initiating
a very long series. Of course, there are other first times that
no one forgets. I can tell you what a certain night of my life
gave me, one I often recallthe night of the thirtieth of
April, 1874. (67)
Upon which follows a curious incident packed with local color.
[> Borges (5)]
[> Borges (3)]
14 August 2006
Borges Revisited (3)
Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
Sarlo addresses the question of originality. My perspective is
different. While this critic concludes that originality is nonexistent,
I'm tempted to draw the opposite conclusion: a verbatim recreation
of Don Quixote is nonetheless an original, consonant with my original
remarks on reinventing the wheel.
I brought this up in the context of a local discussion of originality
in April 2005. I wrote a few short pieces on the subject; begin
of Originality: Vignettes
[> Borges (4)]
[> Borges (2)]
13 August 2006
Borges Revisited (2)
New Borges links on my site:
Borges stories online:
- The Art of Poetry
- Adam Cast Forth
- History of the Night
Other poems of interest:
- The Golem
- The Other Tiger
- The Moon
Borges quote of the day:
"It's possible, but not interesting," Lönnrot
answered. "You will reply that reality hasn't the slightest
need to be of interest. And I'll answer you that reality may avoid
the obligation to be interesting, but that hypothesis may not
. . ." "Death and the Compass"
A letter signed Baruch Spinoza makes its way into "Death and
"Funes the Memorious" involves inter alia Funes' alteration
of language, as if outdoing Locke's thought experiments with language,
for Funes remembered not only each individual object, but each experience
The symbolic duplication of the universe is a constant menace in
Borges' oeuvre. "Parable of the Palace" is one brief such
illustration. The doubling of the act of creation threatens the
disappearance of the cosmos. The creator or interloper in the secrets
of the cosmos, as he approaches the grasp of Everything, vanishes
as an individual, becoming no-one and no-thing. This theme is repeated
ofttimes in Borges' work; one such example is "From Someone
to No One." In "Everything and Nothing", the individual
Shakespeare is unable to assume a fixed identity: God, observing
his creation, tells him He is the same.
[> Borges (3)]
[> Borges (1)]
8 August 2006
Ibsen & Hitler?
and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the
Third Reich by Steven F. Sage
"Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen had a huge following in
1920s Germany. Among his admirers was Adolf Hitler. Sage, a former
research fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, argues that
Hitler's speeches, writings, and even his master plan for the Third
Reich appropriated ideas from Ibsen's dramas, especially Emperor
and Galilean, An Enemy of the People, and The Master
I attended a book talk by the author Sunday evening. He cited John
Hinckley, the Unabomber, and John Wilkes Booth as examples of the
'mimetic syndrome'. I asked him how he could explain the Second
World War and the Holocaust as Hitler acting out an imitation of
Ibsen, as Hitler was not just another lone nut but a commander of
a huge political, industrial, and military apparatus, and thus his
irrational subjectivity had to interact with a myriad of huge objective
factors in the world. I won't record Sage's full response, though
he did say Hitler started out very much as a lone nut.
To get a better answer, I read the final chapter of Sage's book,
chapter 15, "Discovering the Ur-Script." Sage summarizes
the curve of scholarship on Hitler and Nazism, claiming that earlier
focus on Hitler gave way to study of secondary figures and organizational
analyses, displacing attention to Hitler as the prime mover (pp.
312-315). 'Hitler denial' became a trend. There were two schools
of Holocaust Studies: 'intentionalism' vs. 'functionalism'. The
Holocaust Museum purposefully downplays Hitler, to avoid glamorizing
him, and doesn't foster Hitler research. (315-6). But Hitler totally
dominated the Nazi regime. He was treated as its virtual equivalent
by Allied analysts. One historian claimed: no Hitler, no Holocaust.
Note Sage's conclusion: If Hitler were a cog in the machine, it
wouldn't matter what scripts he acted out. But if Hitler was the
prime mover, the inference is unbearable: "It appears that
what set the world aflame was a theatrical production by an unbridled
In his talk and in his book, he described his own discovery process,
how he was led towards such startling considerations. The Ibsen
connection, by the way, is not so shocking. His progressive tendencies
notwithstanding, Ibsen's heroic individualism, his snarling at the
hypocrises of a social order that deserves destruction, owes a historical
debt to Kierkegaard and resonates with Nietzsche, and thus it's
not too much of a stretch to see how Ibsen (also admired by the
vitalist and Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw) could be incorporated
into the irrationalist tradition, the romantic rebellion against
bourgeois mediocrity, and ultimately fascism.
Yet, while the historical documentation might exonerate the book
from cheesy sensationalism, reading the conclusion, I find it difficult
to believe that a professional historian could settle for this level
of historical explanation, as I told the author himself. While the
association of dictators with irrationalism is hardly a rare occurrence,
there seems to be something exceptional about Hitler, as compared
even with other fascist dictators like Mussolini, or for that matter,
dictatorships built on entirely different social foundations, as
in the case of Stalin. Yet there must be a more comprehensive explanation
that integrates individual personality with sociological analysis,
perhaps on the model of Isaac Deutscher's Stalin. Neither
a 'great man' theory of history nor an impersonal account of social
forces alone adequately characterizes the wielding of power, but
the latter gives context to the former in the way the former cannot
do for the latter. Hitler's disregard for pragmatic calculation
based upon realistic assessment of objective conditionsthat
is, his immersion in his own fantasy worldis exceptional,
but an explanation for how such an individual can function on such
a large scale cannot be reduced to the theatrical staging of an
individual psychodrama. Hitler was sufficiently irrational and reckless
to the point where others plotted his assassination, but in any
case, the process by which power becomes so concentrated in one
individual that he cannot be deposed no matter what he does, cannot
be explained by individual charisma. There is a social mechanism
at work. We can be grateful to Sage for his historical documentation,
but must regret once again the exploitation of the Nazi genocide
that once again turns history into mysticism, holding us in thrall
to incomprehensible social forces, leaving us helpless to engage
those forces at work today.
Intellectuals and the Workers" by Karl Kautsky (1903)
6 August 2006
I have added three very important articles from New
Left Review to my Anti-Nietzsche
Bibliography. See Bull, Landa (1999), and Thomas under 'Essays'.
All argue that Nietzsche's right-wing politics are not merely a
negligible or potentially embarrassing sideshow, but constitute
the underlying motivational force of his entire philosophy, and
that the French poststructuralists have deceived us in sanitizing
Nietzsche for the left. More ammunition to answer the question:
'Why Marx and Not Nietzsche?'.
See also Houlgate and Waite under 'Miscellaneous Books'.