Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Regarding: Borges, Labyrnith:
“Pierre Menard...;” “The Circular Ruins;” “Funes the Memorius;” “The Shape of the Sword”

Labyrnith by Jorge Luis Borges: the short stories “Pierre Menard...;” “The Circular Ruins;” “Funes the Memorius;” “The Shape of the Sword”

Does Borges seek to elicit a profoundly different response in us, his readers, to his various stories? It seems to me that none of us are really capable of telling but one story, singing one song, reciting one poem with a wide variety of names and places and inconsequential details, and Borges is really no different from any of us in this regard. I don’t yet know, but at least, after comparing and contrasting today’s reading, we’ll, perhaps, have a better idea, so let us examine the following four short-short stories and see what there is to see.

In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges posits an author who responds to Miguel Cervantes’ 17th Century classic by rewriting, word for word, that very book. The pivot point here is that Menard is not a copyist, he intends to rewrite Don Quixote by becoming Miguel Cervantes, by knowing now all that Miguel Cervantes knew then, but in today’s world, and thus, due to the critical passage of time, the dawning of a new era, the act of existing as Miguel Cervantes in the modern era will make the exact words written then more powerful, more compelling, more elegant, more meaningful today. Underlying this conceit is the real difference in context. Today’s readers are not the readers Cervantes wrote for, and a Miguel Cervantes writing exactly the same words in this time would necessarily mean something quintessentially different. Thus Borges is forcing the sensitive reader to acknowledge that the perceptions we make and share are unique to our experience and, in essence, untranslatably unique. Similarly the reader may come to acknowledge the criticality of the reader, that the manner in which meaning is created is unique for every reader of every text, that, to paraphrase Borges, each reader erroneously attributes anachronistic meaning to the text they encounter and negotiate.

In “The Circular Ruin,” Borges creates a dream world where a mythic creature, perhaps a man, perhaps the dream itself, or perhaps some form of gendered energy, carefully and deliberately constructs the world of man. “He wanted to dream a man,” the reader is told, to “interpolate him into the world of reality.” In this tale the reader comes to understand that endeavoring to dream the man is arduous and unsuccessful until the protagonist abandons his attempts to dream the man, and then, “almost at once” he dreams “of a beating heart.” Minutely, thereafter, the dreamer slowly crafts the man, and the man, metonymically, the world, in a fashion quite similar to how consensual understanding, or meaning, is created in this world — a laborious and accretive process. This understanding, perhaps the fiery, passionate sense of self we all share, is the fire and “fire was the only one that knew his son was a phantom.” Could Borges be saying that knowledge, meaning, experience are all illusory, that these shared “experiences” are no more then the dreams of the consciousness we singularly tap into and eventually, inevitably withdraw from? Ending, not dissimilarly from “Menard,” we are told: “he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”

Again, diving into the meanings of Borges, let us examine “Funes the Memorious,” where the mysterious and ethereal subject, “Ireneo Funes” — Ireneo inferring peace or perhaps peace between men, consequently linked to Funes, possibly a stand-in for Funesto, meaning mortal or fatal — is the main topic of this tale, despite that the author, Borges, introduced within the text, has only briefly and rarely met him: “I never saw him more than three times.” Their first meeting, which Borges recalls clearly, was no meeting for it was just a viewing as the child, Funes, leapt distantly and precariously overhead “in March or Feburary of the year 1884.” Subsequently, after Funes suffered what would typically be known as a catastrophic injury, Borges lent the paralyzed, uneducated, impoverished child a copy of Pliny’s Naturalis historia, and a Latin dictionary, enough to allow the representative savant access to all of the natural world’s knowledge. Funes was tortured or blessed with the ability to recall, in precise and exacting detail, every experience he’d ever had previous to his injury. Before, like all of us, Funes “lived as one in a dream: he looked without seeing, listened without hearing, forgetting everything, almost everything.” When he awoke from his injury “the present was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness, as were his most distant memories.”

The injured man lives more richly, more completely in the minutia of his past and present than the rest of us live at our most sensory enabled. Funes subsequently goes on to create a vast and intricate system of signs, of signifiers and signified, of semiotics, that acknowledge, that deeply and profoundly see how incredibly (beyond the credible) unique every experience, every object, every sensation actually is if we chose to experience the infinite world we exist within. Funes moves beyond human experience into the totality, the global and universal experience, recognizing both the connections and the discrete aspects of each element of our shared experience. He lives more completely by being withdrawn than the rest of us live immersed in the world, and in doing so escapes both his disability and the world itself, a world composed of the “tranquil advances of corruption, of decay, of fatigue. He could note the progress of death.” We are told that no one “has felt the heat and pressure of reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the hapless Ireneo.” In this sense does not Ireneo escape death? Though death comes for him soon after, he is already immaterial, beyond the grasp of that which can decay. Is this a different story than that which Borges elucidates in “The Circular Ruin,” a creation myth that posits life and awareness as a dream we share? How is this different from “Menard,” where meaning and understanding are posited as infinitely complex and unique, transiting time and space to create a singular moment of incomprehensible complexity?

Lastly, and briefly, let us look to “The Shape of the Sword,” where Borges tells a tale (which also includes the author as a character) that explicitly states that “I am all other men, any man is all men, (even) Shakespeare is in some manner the miserable John Vincent Moon.” One could take this as an oppressive and pessimistic message, for Moon is not a sympathetic character, yet, are we not all cowards at times, but heroes, too, on occasion. Unique as we are, do not we all carry the scars inflicted upon ourselves and upon all others and are these scars no more than the consensual signifiers of our lives and values and loves and hates? “The reasons one can have for hating another man, or for loving him, are infinite.” We are man, isolate and universal, this hall of mirrors called life simply reflects our shared consensus.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The necessity and pleasure of demiurgic action ...

Regarding three stories by Jorge Luis Borges: "Tlön, Uqbar,Orbis Tertius," & "The Garden of Forking Paths," & "The Zahir."

The necessity and pleasure of demiurgic action outside the hermetic sanctuary of Literature; Or the role of assertion and resistance in the mental construction of a cultural raison d’etre; Or why reality must always yield to the accreted consensus, yet allow and even predict reëxcavation and reinterpretation.

In 1940 Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo edited and published the Antología de la Literatura Fantástica, a collection of fantastic short stories, but the Anglo-American Cyclopedia may not yet exist, even at some point in the still non-existent future known as 1917, or in the illusory location known as New York.
How can we know New York? Does Des Moines presuppose New York, a constructed antithesis to the extravagant ideation of urbanity at its funky, oppressive, darkened and transitoriness? Or are acts of resistance acts of self-creation? In the beginning there was darkness but now there are only the unknowable acts of the intellect, or is it the romantic, emotional pure love found in acts of faith that offers us leads us to knowledge?

Awful explorations and exposures leaving the reader agape. I could describe multiple blind persons attempting to describe the colors of the dawn but I must assume you know my meaning and see my inferences, as otherwise my citations are merely marks on a page.
That said, or written, the object is artifact and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the object, the romantic, emotional, intellectual, yearning object, not dissimilar to the mysterious vibrating compass, with its quivering blue needle, it is the quivering blue needle that validates the Princess’s yearning for meaningful artifacts with which to express and affirm her place in the physical world.

By the by, although it is unlikely that Borges knew this then, Ezra Buckley did exist, 1803-1874, and the Ezra Buckley Foundation, created for the purpose of destroying history, exists, as a game, here and now, although it is impossible Borges would have known that then or now as Borges, a mercurial being, ceased to operate as a participant of the object plane of this planet—the Orbis Primus, i.e. the physical world, if I may—as of the ephemeral temporal location accepted and acknowledged among some of the cognizanti of Orbis Tertius (earth, not mind) as of June of 14, 1986 but located else-whens by other consciousnesses (see Cervante’s death as compared to Shakespeare’s, for example, or the Chinese versus the Jewish calendar for more examples). “Such (is) the … intrusion of this fantastic world into the world of reality” (p 16, 1962, New Directions Publishing).

We all come from the border of somewhere but it is not so much the liminal spaces that are important as the missing, what Louis Althusser posits as the lacuna, which defines the true discourse. Once again Borges both writes and evokes/invokes through assertion and resistance, through appeals directly to the conscious mind while simultaneously whispering indirectly to the unconscious mind questions about Literature (with a majuscule) and the more important questions about our derivation of meaning.

In the same way the author offers fragmented narratives and the missing pieces to illuminate the “true” text, Borges constantly eludes to the creation of meaning by, Ouroboros-like, constantly returning to the text from different, even alien, and always incomplete perspectives. In another tale, Stephan Albert will say everything stated above, using different metaphors and similes to convey similar meaning, a meaning related but one in which the reader/protagonist necessarily will make different choices, or perhaps the same choices, but end up with a different narrative as a result of the abysmal problem of time, which is actually a problem of interpretation as modified through action, even inaction, which inevitably leads to a unique result—one of an infinite number of possibilities, each, like a broken fragment, redefining the same shared experience of what is.

Don’t get lost. We’re already there. Start making sense. They’re all the same narrative…

Friday, March 01, 2013

James Madison’s Majority Nightmare:
An engaged, enraged and impoverished rabble.

It may be said that I come to this argument with a personal agenda, especially considering the economic circumstance we find in America in the early 21st Century, so be it. Like most of us, I feel poor by my own standing, but, unlike many, I know that I am rich when compared with so many other Americans. Further I believe that I have experienced the extremes of both opposing sides of the economic spectrum that impacts us all; and in the 60 years I have been on this earth I have seen a wide swath of what is humanly possible. It is in this glaring light that I must judge James Madison’s Federalist 10 and 51 and find these to be too quickly, even premeditatively, reaching for the bottle of power to protect and secure the well-heeled minority over the natural interests of the economically bereft majority.

It is so widely acknowledged and recorded that Madison’s “most distinctive belief was that the new republic needed checks and balances to protect individual rights from the tyranny of the majority*” that this is noted almost immediately in the Wikipedia entry on James Madison. In Federalist 10 Madison plainly states his concerns about the tyranny of the majority against the minority, referring in paragraph one to “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority,”as though it was the greatest threat facing the new-founded country. Madison perfects his concerns in paragraph seven of Federalist 10: “The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property,” suggesting that an impoverished hungry country full of unemployed citizens might find the excesses of those who got their money the old fashion way — by inheriting it — hard to bear meekly. I suggest that it is Madison’s fear of potential future acts of government that might redistribute the young nation’s wealth that most motivates his thinking in both Federalist 10 and Federalist 51, but let us look to the texts.

Federalist 51 begins with a question: How should the young country “practice the necessary partition of power?” Madison says this partition is particularly important in assuring that no one segment of the government reign supreme over all the others, for as we know from our class discussions and his reference to the saintly behavior of inhuman angels, pure power is the most addictive of substances for mere mortals and inevitably leads to tyranny. Madison answers his initial question in paragraph four of Federalist 51 with the observation that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Note that it is not the Creator nor morality nor compassion nor Christian charity that might mediate the human lust for power and wealth, but that by pitting the hunger of one ferocious dog against the next, the general populace might be saved from the most wretched of avaricious impulses by its individual governing citizens. In paragraph nine he again reaffirms his concerns about dangers of majority rule by first briefly acknowledging the risks of oppression by the ‘rulers,’ which is offered in contrast to the premier importance of guarding “one part of the society against the injustice of the other part” — as though the tyranny of the elite was not either of those ‘parts.’ It almost seems as if Madison’s ideal of democratic rule is a dream almost beyond his ability to surrender to the democratic process, which should be ironic in that he is called the “Father of the Constitution.”

Returning to paragraph four Madison recognizes that the first problem of government is granting men the power and authority to govern themselves. He then states that the second problem is getting government to regulate or restrict itself. His solution in paragraph five is to create many, separate, nearly equal departments to vie for this dangerous authority in a policy of supplying “opposite and rival interests,” “where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.” Again it is only by setting the worst of us in competition with the other worst of us that the average person might avoid being entirely consumed. There is no appeal to our better natures in Madison’s argument, nor are there legal obligations and restrictions, only the recognition of our most selfish impulses. Each self-interested party in governance shall be constrained by the matching self-interest of their competitive parties. Like Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, this system seems to work better in the idealization of daydreams and coffeehouse conversations than in the dog-eat-dog world where these greedy parties quickly realize that by either ‘horse-trading’ or selective ‘blindness,’ each of them can get all them want and more, so long as no one upsets the status quo by reining in his opposite too vigorously. In fact, by codifying this specific individual self-interest into the institutional framework of government, doesn’t this encourage the most selfish and self-interested of behaviors and ensure us that predominantly only the worst of us will fight hard enough to win a seat at the public table of governance, and only so that those who rise to such heights of hypocrisy will be giving access to the trough of bottomless cash? Doesn’t this create an entire governmental culture of greed and narrow self-interest rather than empathetic and noble compassion for all the citizens of this union? There are other compunctions used by humans throughout history to moderate their worst behaviors, religion offers entire tomes dedicated to elevating man’s baser instincts to a higher plane.

Madison’s next several paragraphs are devoted to further elucidating the particular branches of government, both state and federal, and each branch’s natural strengths and weaknesses, with suggestions as to how best to keep each branch and office at parity with its several mates. In paragraph nine Madison states the obvious, that ‘Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens,” by which it is reasonable to suggest that he is again referring to the disparity of wealth, especially inherited wealth, already endemic to the new born country. His first solution is to create a “hereditary or self-appointed authority.” I assume by this Madison is referring to something like the English House of Lords (or more and more like both of our two houses of government where hereditary office seems to be more the rule than the exception). He dismisses this idea without detail. His second solution is to suggest a society “broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” It has been our misfortune to have seen over the last 250 years that the rights of the minority, if that minority was not wealthy and powerful, were rarely protected from the abuses of the majority under such a system as Madison devised, just as it has been our misfortune to have witnessed that a wealthy and powerful minority has continually coalesced both wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands over the ensuing years.

Madison then looks into the hazy future in the balance of the final paragraph, still paragraph nine, to see a vast and diverse America where our great numbers and varieties of peoples is our salvation. Or as Madison states “the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government.” It would be wonderfully interesting sit down with James Madison today, 250 years later, and hear what he has to say about this system of governance he worked out. My suspicion is that it worked out very much like he expected it would.

*from Wikipedia, referencing Madison Debates in Convention - Tuesday June 26, 1787: “There will be particularly the distinction of rich & poor. … In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former.” …and Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, June 26th: “The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa, or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge of the wants or feelings of the day laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time … when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small … will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections … if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. The checks and balances ought to be so constituted as to protect the [privatized property of the] minority of the opulent against the [will of the] majority.”

Madison, James. “The Federalist Papers, The Federalist No. 10.” Thomas: Library of Congress. unknown. Web. April 13, 2011 Wikipedia. “James Madison.” April 13, 2011. Web. April 13, 2011 < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Madison>
Fred Dodsworth, April 13, 2011