The International Legacy of Jorge Luis Borges

The International Legacy of Jorge Luis Borges

Copyright 2010 Evelyn C. Leeper.

Googling around one day, I found a syllabus for a course in Comparative Literature at Penn State University. The course was taught by Prof. Djelal Kadir in the Fall 2007 semester and was called "After Borges: (The International Legacy of Jorge Luis Borges)". So I figured, what the heck. I wouldn't get the lectures, but I could certainly do the readings, or most of them. Not everything was available from my library, and I am not even sure where some of the articles have appeared, but I did manage to find most of the books. (Scroll down past the table of contents for the actual article.)

Table of Contents

Week One: The Possibility of Literature & the Literature of Possibility: Reading and Writing

Prof. Kadir starts off with two pieces--one fiction, one non-fiction--about the writing process itself. It is not without some irony that one finds in "Pierre Menard" the line, "There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately useless." Borges is apparently applying it to writing, but in context one detects the implication that it applies to literary criticism as well, following as it does the statement, "The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the latter is almost infinitely richer. ... The contrast of styles is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard--foreigner to the end--suffers from some affectation. Not so that of his precursor, who handles with ease the everyday Spanish of his era." To those who believe the text should speak for itself, that critical claim about Menard's writing exemplifies everything that is wrong with literary criticism that assumes that the author's intent is important.

(My position is that the author's intent may be interesting for historians, but that the work must stand on its own, because most readers are not going to spend time researching the author. I know that when Orson Scott Card wrote Pastwatch he was not trying to promote gay rights, but I also know that someone who didn't know anything about Card could very easily read it that way. See my review at for details.)

And if Kadir is looking for evidence of Borges's influence on later authors, he definitely needs to look in the science fiction field. For example, Borges writes of Menard's approach to writing "Quixote" that "the initial method that he imagined was relatively simple. To learn Spanish well, to return to Catholicism, to fight against the Moors and the Turk, to forget the history of Europe between the years of 1602 and 1918, to be Miguel de Cervantes."

While this may take some inspiration from John Carter staring up at Mars, thinking about it, and being transported there, it seems to have been elaborated upon in Richard Matheson's Bid Time Return, made into the film Somewhere in Time. In that the narrator Robert Collier wants to travel to the past. So he puts on authentic clothes, clears the room of everything post-1896, lies down, and keeps repeating to himself, "It is November 19, 1896. You're lying on your bed, eyes closed, relaxed, and it's November 19, 1896. ... If you hear a sound outside, it will be carriage wheels turning, the thud of horses' hooves. ... It's November 19, 1896. November 19, 1896. You're lying on a bed in the hotel del Coronado and it's November 19, 1896. ..."

A linguistic digression: What I translate as "to fight against the Moors and the Turk" was in Spanish "guerrear contra los moros o contra el turco." Why, I wonder are the Moors plural, but the Turk singular?)

All the above was written before I read "The Flower of Coleridge", which discusses and elaborates some of these very ideas. For example, in his unfinished novel The Sense of the Past, Henry James has his protagonist return to the eighteenth century by (as Borges puts it) "identifying himself with that period." I have not read the novel (for that matter, neither had Borges), but this sounds identical to Robert Collier's approach.

(The Sense of the Past is described as "an imaginative work which was a variation or an elaboration of The Time Machine [by H. G. Wells]." And it has what may be the first instance of a classic time travel paradox. Ralph Pendrel goes back in time because he is fascinated by a painting from the eighteenth century that looks like him. While back there, he meets the painter, who then paints his portrait--the portrait--because there is something so strange about him. I really would like to read it, but it seems to be available only in an expensive academic edition.)

Borges quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as having said, "I am very much struck in literature by the appearance that one person wrote all the books; ... there is such equality and identity both of judgment and point of view in the narrative that it is plainly the work of one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman." ["Nominalist and Realist"] Later Borges adds, "The pantheist who declares that the plurality of authors is illusory finds unexpected support in the classicist, to whom that plurality matters but little. For classical minds, the literature is the essential thing, not the individuals."

Another linguistic digression: In regard to Wells's Time Machine, Borges talks about "the idle Eloi, who live in dilapidated palaces and ruined gardens; the subterranean and nyctolopic Morlocks, who feed on the former." I had to look up "nyctolopic" in the OED, where I discovered that Borges uses it in its original sense ("night-seeing") rather than its more recent--and opposite--sense ("night-blind"). Of course, Borges was writing in Spanish, so it is possible that there it never changed meaning, and in fact, the 1932 Spanish dictionary I checked defines a "nictálope" as someone or something who sees better at night than during the day, so at least as of 1932, it retained its original meaning in Spanish. This is even more confusing than false cognates (such as "embarazado" and "embarrassed").

Week Two: Borges and His Precursors I

After reading just one paragraph of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", my first observation is that while Borges may have copied the structure of the detective story from Poe, he cetainly did not copy the style. Where Poe is ornate, Borges is sparse.

"The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles to action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles." [Poe]

"Of the many problems that exercised the Lonnrot's fearless perspicacity, none were so strange--so rigorously strange, one might say--as the regular series of bloody events that culminated at the villa of Triste-le-Roy, among the constant aroma of eucalyptus." [Borges, "Death and the Compass"]

Indeed, H. R. F. Keating wrote, "You have only to look at the first pages of 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' to see that it is something more than merely an ingenious story of detection. Before there is any mention of the mysterious deaths Poe gives us four mighty paragraphs of philosophy. There can be no opening words of a crime story more unexciting than, 'The mental features discoursed of as the analytical ...' This opening is even followed by a long mental pen-portrait of Dupin. It is plain that here is a man aiming to do a great deal more than merely entertain." Of course, the same can also be said of Borges.

In "Murders in the Rue Morgue", Poe does something that is rather odd: he defines something almost totally by negation. That is, his detective draws an important conclusion based on a series of statements in which five witnesses each say it was not their native language, but think it was another (named) language--which they are actually unfamiliar with. For example, the Englishman says it was not English, but he thought it was German (although he understood no German). And so on. (When done in the 1932 Universal film, this was reduced to three languages and a shouting match among the witnesses added, which just seemed foolish, but in the story it was much more straightforward.) There is something very, well, Borgesian about this--not a mirror image, but a reversal of the usual.

However, I have to take exception with Dupin's conclusion, correct though it may be. He says, "You will say it might have been the voice of an Asiatic--of an African. Neither Asiatics nor Africans abound in Paris...." And orangutans do?

Also, Dupin's reconstruction of the narrator's train of thought at the beginning seems incredibly forced. If indeed, walking on a pavement of "overlapping and riveted blocks" must bring to the narrator's mind the term "stereotomy", and that in turn forces him to "atomies", hence Epicurus, hence nebulae, hence Orion, then the narrator is a very dim fellow indeed, to have such a constrained mind.

"The Mystery of Marie Roget" has almost no plot, but is instead an analysis of the testimony of witnesses in an unsolved murder case. One big difference between Poe and Borges is that Borges, if not a mathematician, at least has an understanding of mathematics, while Poe can write something like:

"Nothing, for example, is more difficult to convince the merely general reader that the fact of sixes having been thrown twice in succession by a player of dice, is sufficient cause for betting the largest odds that sixes will not be thrown in the third attempt. A suggestion to this effect is usually rejected by the intellect at once. It does not appear that the two throws which have been completed, and which lie now absolutely in the Past, can have influence upon throw which exists only in the Future. The chance for throwing sixes seems to be precisely as it was at any ordinary time--that is to say, subject only to the influence of the various other throws which may be made by the dice."

John T. Irwin (in A Mystery to a Solution) writes that mathematics was one of Poe's best subjects and that surely he knew that the "merely general reader" is indeed correct in this scenario and the narrator wrong, and that therefore Poe is creating an ignorant or unreliable narrator rather than actually making this claim. I am not sure I am convinced of this. Consider this from "The Purloined Letter":

"I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who would be trusted out of equal roots, or who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x**2+px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x**2+px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down." This reminds me of a line from Little Man Tate that Mark is fond of quoting as designed to demonize scientists: "I'm working on experiments involving lasers, sulphuric acid, and butterflies."

In addition, one has to say that Irwin's knowledge of mathematics is shaky, since he also says, "By definition a number is odd if, when the number is divided by two, there is a remainder of one. And by that definition the first odd number is three." No, the first odd [natural] number is one. Firstly, one has to assume that by "number" Irwin means "positive integer". There is no "first" odd number if one includes negative integers, and the terms "odd" and "even" are meaningless when applied to non-integers. But even when restricted to positive integers, Irwin has ignored the plain fact that one is odd. One suspects that he confused being an odd number with being a prime number, a category from which one is excluded.

In "The Purloined Letter", I would say that one big problem is the time the Prefect says he spent to search for letter. Even though he says he spent an entire week of nights searching each room (minus any nights the thief was actually home), the degree of thoroughness seems hard to accept. (For example, he says that his men turned every page of every book.) I was reminded of the many stories where robbers steal a huge amount of gold in fifteen minutes and a Volkswagen that in reality would take several days and a fleet of trucks. The good news is that in the non-realistic world of Jorge Luis Borges, this sort of problem would not matter. (Consider the Library of Babel--completely impossible in reality, but certainly interesting to think about theoretically.)

Of "The Garden of the Forking Paths" and "Death and the Compass" I have written enough in the past that I will not add anything here. "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth", on the other hand, is much less known and much less written about (by anyone). In part, this is a function of Borges's publishing history. The great majority of his classic stories were written in the 1930s and early 1940s, while "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth" was written in 1949. And the two major collections of Borges's work are Ficciones and Labyrinths, both of which contain the two earlier stories but not "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth".

"Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth" is, however, the story most obviously influenced by Poe. The detective is Dunraven, there are the same sorts of references to poets and mathematicians (and mathematics) as in Poe's stories, and there is even an explicit reference to "The Purloined Letter".

In these three stories, we see two of Borges's famous labyrinths. In fact, in "The Garden of Forking Paths", we get a double dose, both the labyrinth that is being constructed in the book, and in the directions Richard Madden gets to Stephen Albert's house: bear left at the first intersection and at every intersection thereafter. He observes that this is a standard way to navigate a labyrinth, and in fact Dunraven proposes the same method ("turning always to the left") in "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth".

Week Three: Borges and His Precursors II

Macedonio Fernández (known simply as Macedonio) was one of Borges's most important and influential mentors. It took some work to find a copy of his Selected Writings in Translation, since it was issued in a limited edition of only 1000 copies twenty-five years ago. (One wonders how students of the actual course were expected to get copies.) Luckily, Rutgers had a copy and I was able to get it through a special inter-library loan.

Macedonio (as he is known) is a fascinating author. In the introduction to this volume, Jo Anne Engelbert says, "A mischievous destiny caused him to be born a congenital Idealist inside a Materialist stronghold, the Buenos Aires of 1874, where, as in most parts of the Western world, believes in a solid world out-there controlled not only metaphysics, the libraries and the press, but psychology, language and art. He was dismayed at the hallucinations of his contemporaries, who were obsessed by a belief in a world composed of matter ..."

As an example of the conflict between Idealism and Materialism, Engelbert writes of Macedonio's "perplexity ... at unaccountably finding himself the owner of a body that occupied space, collided with bodies, felt pain. His feeling toward his body seemed to be that of a person who finds himself holding on a leash a giant ostrich which whom he has only a nodding acquaintance."

But it is not just Idealism that sets Macedonio apart. He seems to have cultivated a very playful (or perhaps convoluted) approach to language, making translation difficult and the diagramming of sentences well nigh impossible. He was particularly fond of parenthetical phrases, often nested and sometimes used to introduce totally unrelated and unconnected ideas. As Engelbert describes it, Macedonio develops his style "through the simple expedient of allowing each linguistic node to branch, and each branch to continue to bifurcate...." This style may have inspired Borges's "The Garden of the Forking Paths", with its many bifurcations and with its notion of a book as labyrinth.

And indeed I am getting side-tracked in Selected Writings. Once I got the book, I figured I would read it all (it's only 124 pages). and I kept finding gems, such as this from "Toward a Theory of Humor": "Although 'rationality' has a positive affective resonance, that is, a pleasurable connotation, because it seems to be synonymous with our general security of life and conduct, nevertheless, as soon as it is experienced as an inexorable, universal law, it limits the richness of the possibilities of life."

Macedonio also made up words ("un almismo ayoico" apparently means something like "psychic manifestation"). In this he was not unlike Lewis Carroll or James Joyce, but it makes translation difficult.

In a review of Macedonio's first book, Borges wrote, "In the complex kind of plotting practised by Wells and company, the quotidianity of life is exact, and hallucination is achieved by introducing some absurd contingency which ... is sufficient to topple the previously rigid edifice. ... Generalizing ..., I should like to suggest that the imaginative novel is nothing more than the doggedly logical exploitation of a single whim. I know of only one exception. In the digression of Macedonio Fernández I seem to see an imagination in constant exercise: an activity that buoyantly goes on designing universes, not codified or fatal like a chess problem, but spontaneous and irreverent like a good game of truco...."

This can be summarized (I think) as saying that most science fiction relies on changing just one thing and seeing what develops from that (an idea in fact first expressed by Wells), but Macedonio does not restrain himself that way.

Macedonio writes, "I wanted a constant fantasy for my pages, and realizing how hard it is to avoid the hallucination of reality, the blemish of art, I have created the only character born to date which consistent fantasy can guarantee a solid unreality in this undegradeable-to-real novel: the character who isn't there, whose existence in the novel makes him fantastic with respect to the novel itself, in the same way that the world, being, seems real to us because there are dreams. I trust him to save the fantasy here if all else fails: he is the Traveler, who in life itself may not exist at all--I don't believe in Travelers: the two attributes that define the high quality traveler are the faculty and wish to forget and the faculty and wish to be forgotten." ["Museum of the Novel of Eterna--The First Good Novel"] Is this going to connect to Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler? It is true that one does occasionally see the non-existent character in stories (at least one Agatha Christie novel used this device, and probably more) or in real life (consider "The Man Who Never Lived" in World War II).

And then Macedonio proposes something that other writers have implemented as best they can--the conflation of reader and character:

"I leave an open book: perhaps it will be the first 'open book' in literary history, that is, the author, wishing it were better, or at least good, and convinced that its mutilated structure is a dreadful discourtesy to the reader, but also convinced that the book is rich in suggestions, hereby authorizes any future writer whose temperament and circumstances favor intense labor to correct and edit it freely, with or without mentioning my name. The task will not be small. Delete, amend, change, but, if possible, let something remain. At this point I insist that my theory of the novel could best be executed in a novel in which several persons had gathered to read a novel together, so that they, the reader-characters--readers of the other novel and characters of this one--would constantly stand out as real persons because of the contrast between themselves and the figures and images they were reading about. Such a plot, made up of some characters who were both reading and being read and others who were merely being read, were it systematically developed, would comply with the demands of the theory."

This idea is sometimes manifested as a second person point-of-view. Howard J. Blumenthal's The Complete Time Traveler is probably the first instance I ran across of this, but obviously there are others of a more literary nature. Paul Auster's inclusion of himself as a character other than the narrator in some of his stories (see Week Four) is another variation of this.

I had thought that by "Jorge Luis Borges's 'Macedonio Fernández'", Kadir meant the eulogy Borges delivered for Macedonio, but apparently Borges also wrote a long preface to a volume of Macedonio's. Not much can be said about this other than it provides a good biographical background for the peculiarities in Macedonio's writing.

I read Paul Valéry's "fragment from 'On Poe's 'Eureka'", but I have to admit that it made no sense to me. Was it the translation, or is there something about French literary criticism that is opaque? The result was that Borges's "Valéry as Symbol" had no real context for me.

Given that "The Lottery in Babylon" is primarily about arbitrary political systems, one might have expected Prof. Kadir to have chosen The Trial or The Castle rather than "The Metamorphosis". It may have been a choice based primarily on length--all the books chosen are relatively short--but then that is a characteristic of Borges's style as well. But it may also be that "The Metamorphosis" has characteristics that Borges adopted. For example, Martin Greenberg points out that Kafka's novella has its climax in its opening sentence: "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." [tr. Stanley Corngold]. As Corngold notes, "Here, evidently, the Aristotelian form of the narrative ceases to be relevant. 'The Metamorphosis' generates its form out of its own fundamental subject matter: 'The traditional kind of narrative based on the drama of dénouement--on the unknotting of complications and the coming to a conclusion--could not serve Kafka because it is just exactly the absence of dénouement and conclusions that is his subject matter.'"

Well, that lack of traditional Aristotelian narrative structure is a definite characteristic of most of Borges's fiction. To be sure, there are some stories by Borges that are more traditional in nature (e.g., "The Garden of the Forking Paths" and "Death and the Compass"). But this week's selection, "The Lottery in Babel" is an example of a "fiction" (to use Borges's term) that eschews the traditional structure altogether. In a sense, it is more like the backstory that a writer would sketch out before writing the actual story. (Writers are often told not to put all their research explicitly into a story, but Borges frequently doesn't put anything except his research in!)

Of course, I had read Borges's "The Lottery in Babylon" many times, but one always discovers something new. This time around it was a clarification of a sentence that had never made sense to me: "A happy drawing might motivate his elevation to the council of wizards or his condemnation to the custody of an enemy (notorious or intimate)...." [tr. Anthony Kerrigan, in Ficciones]

Looking at the original Spanish, I found it said, "Una jugada feliz podía motivar su elevación al concilio de magos o la prisión de un enemigo (notorio o íntimo)...." This is better translated as "A happy drawing might cause his elevation to the council of mages or the imprisonment of an enemy (notorious or intimate)...." (I will note that Andrew Hurley gets it right in his translation for the volume Collected Fictions.)

But in the context of this course, "The Lottery in Babylon" shows the influence of Kafka in the arbitrariness and irrationality of political systems. Of course, it also reflects those characteristics in the political systems that Borges was seeing at the time he wrote the story (1941), but the debt to Kafka is clear--there is even an explicit reference ["its sacred privy called Qaphqa"]).

While Kafka is a precursor of Borges In "Kafka and His Precursors" Borges looks at the precursors of Kafka. This is vaguely reminiscent of those recursive paintings, in which an artist is painting a picture, which is actually just a smaller version of the big painting, and which in turn contains a yet smaller painting, and so on. And ironically, the first thing Borges talks about is Zeno's paradox in which the hare never overtakes the tortoise, because after it covers half the distance, it must still cover half the remaining distance, and so on--infinite regression in both cases.

Borges also points out a wonderful poem by Robert Browning, "Fears and Scruples" (1876). As described by Borges, "A man has, or believes he has, a famous friend. He has never seen this friend and the fact is that this friend has never helped him, although tales are told of his most noble traits and authentic letters of his circulate about. Then someone places these traits in doubt and the hand-writing experts declare that the letters are apocryphal. The man asks, in the last line: 'And if this friend were ... God?'" Browning's argument is truly modern, and if you think about it, the implication of a world supposedly run by an unknown, unknowable, unseen being is very Kafkaesque--or Borgesian.

Borges concludes, "The fact is that every writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." So when we look at Kafka as a precursor of Borges, we may see in Kafka things we might not have noticed before. Did people comment on the stylistic device of a companion to Dupin as a narrator when Poe first published the stories, or was it only when other authors adopted this technique that Poe became the precursor of Doyle, and Christie, and McCall Smith?

Week Four: The Tetragrammaton, Or HardBoiled Noire

In "Chesterton and the Labyrinths of the Detective Story" (1935), Borges lays out six rules for the detective story:

  1. A discretional limit of six characters.
  2. The declaration of all terms of the problem.
  3. An avaricious economy of means.
  4. The priority of how over who.
  5. A reticence concerning death.
  6. A solution that is both necessary and marvelous.

Borges's rules seem related to (though not identical to) "Father [Ronald Arbuthnott] Knox's Ten Commandments" (written in 1929):

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural and preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. No more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them."

In specific, Borges's Rule B (full disclosure) is a combination of Knox's Commendments IV and VIII. Borges's explanation of C (no doubles) makes it similar to Knox's X, Borges's D (how over who) is related to Knox's II, and Borges's F (no supernatural) is the same as Knox's II (with a bit of VI thrown in).

Borges's Rule A (no more than six characters) is probably more applicable to the short story than to the novel, although one might modify this to "no more than six major characters." Still, Agatha Christie regularly broke this rule (not to mention about half of Knox's commandments) without the artistic quality suffering. (It is only in her repeated use of mis-identification of people and bodies that one begins to have a negative reaction.)

(One wonders why neither Borges nor Knox used basic "Arabic" numerals for their lists. Knox may have used Roman numerals because they were "commandments"; did Borges use letters as an homage to Knox?)

In "On Chesterton" we can see part of what fascinated Borges about Chesterton. He says that Chesterton "speaks of a jail of mirrors; of a labyrinth without a center." Here are two of Borges's trademarks, or perhaps "obsessions" is a better word: mirrors and labyrinths.

In this essay, Borges also emphasizes how Chesterton obeys Borges's last rule (no supernatural): "Each story in the Father Brown Saga presents a mystery, proposes explanations of a demoniacal or magical sort, and then replaces them at the end with solutions of this world."

Note: I had heard that Borges's first appearance in English was in the March 1960 issue of Fantastic Universe ("The Rejected Sorcerer"). This is not true; it was the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine ("The Garden of Forking Paths"). So his connection with the detective story is even stronger for English-speakers, since that is how he was first introduced.

The re-reading of Borges's "Death and the Compass" at this point (which was also read in week two) makes sense if we look at it in the context of Borges's rules.

  1. A discretional limit of six characters.
    Not counting peripheral references to journalists and such, we have exactly six: Erik Lonnrot, Red Scharlach, Marcel Yarmolinksky, Commissioner Treviranus, Daniel Simon Azevedo, Gryphius-Ginsberg.
  2. The declaration of all terms of the problem.
    Without my giving away spoilers, yes, this seems to be true.
  3. An avaricious economy of means.
    This is also followed.
  4. The priority of how over who.
    This seems pretty obvious. Yes, the who is something, but the emphasis is on the how.
  5. A reticence concerning death.
    There are some brief descriptions of the bodies, but Borges on the whole is writing what might almost be called a cozy.
  6. A solution that is both necessary and marvelous.
    Borges sets up a whole structure of possible kabbalistic intrigue, human sacrifice, the use of the Tetragrammaton--and then produces a perfectly mundane solution.

I have previously reviewed Luís Fernando Veríssimo's Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, but there is still much to be said. For example, does it follow Borges's six rules? Yes. Vogelstein, Rotkopf, Urquiza, Johnson, Ikisara, and Borges himself make six characters, and all other rules are followed as well. The one possible violation is that the solution still has a hint of the supernatural, although that can be explained away as attributable to an unreliable narrator. But Veríssimo gives you all the clues, from the very first page, just as Christopher Priest does in The Prestige. What is marvelous is how each of them tells you everything without you ever realizing it.

Priest's novel, by the way, could also be included in this syllabus. It's a mystery, and it relies on magic, and on mirrors, and on all those great convolutions that typify Borges. It may violate one of Borges's rules, but in a sense it is allowed to. In fact, many of Priest's novels are of the sort that Borges fans would love. I had described them as "Escheresque", because of all the interconnections between and within novels (some seem constructed almost like Klein bottles), but "Borgesian" would not be inaccurate. Think about the famous Escher drawing of a hand drawing itself drawing itself in a never-ending circle. There may not be a physical mirror there, but there is a reflection. (Several of Escher's drawings do have mirrors, of course.) And the "impossible constructions" of the ever-falling waterfall and others have a certain labyrinthine quality to them.

But I digress.

I was not sure of how much importance to attach to the fact that Veríssimo seemed to have rendered "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth" as "Abenjacán el Bojarí, dead in his labyrinth", but that turns out to be a translation issue. "Abenjacán el Bojarí" is Borges's original spelling of the name, and "dead" is a better translation of Borges's "muerto" than "murdered" is.

Prof. Kadir chose Paul Auster's "Ghosts" from Auster's New York Trilogy, but in some ways it is not the best choice. In "Ghosts" we have characters who are not real characters, but labels: Blue, Black, White, and so on. This emphasis on color runs throughout the story: it takes place on Orange Street, in a red-brick house and a brownstone, and so on. And we discover that while White has hired Blue to watch Black, Black may also be watching Blue, and Black may also be White. All this is very Borgesian, both in its lack of "real" characters and in its use of the imagery of mirrors and reflections.

But in "City of Glass" we start with a writer named Daniel Quinn who uses the pseudonym William Wilson (the eponymous character(s) in a story by Poe which appears later in the syllabus) to write the private investigator character Max Work, and who one night gets a call for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. When Quinn/Wilson tracks down Paul Auster, it turns out that Auster is an author who is writing about the authorship of Don Quixote (shades of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"!). Pointing out that Don Quixote has the same initials as Daniel Quinn seems unnecessary. However, I will point out that there really is an author named Daniel Quinn who has written at least one alternate history novel, and the title of that novel relies on just the sort of ambiguity that seems apropos here!

But wait--it gets better. At the end of the novella, we leave what we had thought was a third-person omniscient point-of-view for an on-stage narrator. We therefore have the real Paul Auster writing an unidentified narrator talking about a fictional Paul Auster who someone thinks is a detective and tries to hire, but the person accidentally contacts Daniel Quinn instead, Quinn being a mystery writer who writes under the pseudonym William Wilson, creating a detective named Max Work.

At the beginning of "City of Glass", Quinn is reading Marco Polo's introduction to his "Travels" in which he says, "We will set down things seen as seen, things heard as heard, so that our book may be an accurate record, free from any sort of fabrication. And all who read this book or hear it may do so with full confidence, because it contains nothing but the truth." Well, this is obviously irony on one level--clearly the story (the real) Auster is writing is not truth on any level, even internally. But it's doubly ironic, since most of what Marco Polo wrote wasn't truth either--it is generally accepted that he himself never got anywhere near China.

There are some additional connections, both internally and to Borges. The geography of the routes one character walks in "City of Glass" are important and form a sort of labyrinth, just as the geography is critical to "Death and the Compass" and labyrinths to "The Garden of the Forking Paths" and "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth", and just as geography is the primary feature of Marco Polo's writings. The whole "Tower of Babel" theory and philosophical position, with its discussions of language and communication, is intimately connected to "The Library of Babel" and its exhaustive set of books, where everything that can be said, is said, in all languages and all configurations.

"The Locked Room" also has echoes of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", with Quinn to a great extent adopting Fanshawe's life and works, and becoming in some sense Fanshawe. (It also has characters that appear in the other two stories, but this is not Borgesian.)

Auster mostly follows Borges's six rules (though he does have a twin at one point that might be considered a violation of the "avaricious economy of means." And the solution, far from being "both necessary and marvelous," sometimes seems to be lacking entirely.

I mentioned earlier that all the works chosen for this course were relatively short. Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, for example, is only 134 pages long. The White Castle is 176 pages, The Encyclopedia of the Dead 200 pages, Bartleby & Co 178 pages, There Is No Borges 196 pages, and The Invention of Morel only 91 pages. There are no enormous doorstops here. I cannot even see how one could write something 700 pages long in a Borgesian style.

Week Five: Argentine Trinity

My understanding is that the South in Argentina represents what the West does in the United States: a frontier, a more basic way of life, a place of independence and freedom and lawlessness. So when the narrator of Borges's "The South" goes to the South, it is like someone here going to the West, and especially the West of the late 19th century. And the narrator clearly represents Borges himself, since he has the same accident (running into an open window/door on a staircase and getting blood poisoning), and a very similar set of forebears. Is this Borges looking at an alternate history for himself, where instead of living an intellectual life he returns to the pioneering days of his ancestors? Or is it that both he and the narrator underwent a major life change--the narrator changing his life by going South to his destiny and Borges changing his life by beginning to write the "fictions" that would make his fame?

Borges has suggested another reading, one in which the entire story after the accident is an hallucination in the narrator's mind. Can it be then that Borges is suggesting that perhaps Macedonio was right in his dismay "at the hallucinations of his contemporaries, who were obsessed by a belief in a world composed of matter ..."? Is Borges entertaining the idea that existence is an illusion?

Borges's "The End" is a sequel to "Martin Fierro", a classic Argentine epic. It takes an episode from that poem, and presents what is basically a reversal of it. This could be seen as yet another example of mirrors and reflections in Borges's work, though I am not entirely convinced.

Borges's "The Shape of the Sword" has a different sort of reflection or mirroring, this one more based on identity than on actual mirrors.

Borges's "The Man on the Threshold" has a Kafka-esque quality to it, with a similarity to "Before the Law", as well as a rather cavalier attitude toward time (and space, too, for that matter). Some have commented on a Kipling-esque element as well, but that seems to be mostly the (Anglo-)Indian setting (and mystique, I suppose) rather than any sense of either adventure or Empire. In a sense it's ironic that this story was chosen to represent Argentine authors, given its Indian setting, though of course Cortázar's stories are also set elsewhere (Greece, Mexico, etc.). What makes this setting more unusual is that most of Borges is either set firmly in Argentina, or firmly in never-never land: the Library of Babel, Tlön, a Babylon that is nothing like the historical Babylon, a maze on an unknown island, and so on. Rarely does he choose another definite, real place for his stories. And often when he does, the setting has no immediacy.

I have written so much about Borges's "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" that more would be redundant. See

Jorge Luis Borges, "Prologue to The Invention of Morel and Other Stories" [to be filled in]

Adolfo Bioy Casares was a frequent collaborator of Borges; together they produced such works as Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi and The New Chronicles of Bustos Domenq. The Invention of Morel, however, is a solo effort by Bioy Casares. THE INVENTION OF MOREL is a 1940 science fiction novel. It took me a while to find an English-language copy; I finally got one and was surprised at how science fictional it was.

Knowing the background of the work helps. Bioy Casares was fascinated by silent film star Louise Brooks, and THE INVENTION OF MOREL was motivated by this. The science fictional aspect of the novel is clearly related to cinema and our reactions to it, in particular our tendency to see the character on the screen as the reality, rather than just as a created image. And although the book is seventy years old, and predates computers, artificial intelligence, etc., there is still the germ of the ideas of uploading personalities and of virtual realities.

Julio Cortázar's "House Taken Over" sounds very familiar--I can't help but feel I have read it before (possibly by Patricia Highsmith?). Or maybe it was just something very similar, because I seem to remember more stages in this story of a house becoming "possessed," though not quite in the sense that term is usually used. Cortázar is not talking about ghosts here, but something more substantial, without being actually substantial.

Cortázar's "The Idol of the Cyclades" is more Lovecraftian in tone. (It seems oddly connected to some of the Rhys Hughes stories in Journeys Beyond Advice.) For example, Cortázar describes the idol as "that white lunar body, a kind of insect antedating all history, worked under inconceivable circumstances by someone inconceivably remote, thousands of year ago, even further back, the dizzying distance of the animal, vegetal rites alternating with tides and syzygies and seasons of rut and humdrum ceremonies of propitiation...." But a phrase like "Somoza's taste for certain marginal literatures" seems as though it could be found either in Lovecraft or in Borges. The very vagueness of the statement, not saying exactly what sort of literature, seems more the way Borges would express it, while the notion of a "taste for certain marginal literature" seems by implication Lovecraftian. And the ending of "The Idol of the Cyclades" has echoes back to Borges's "The Shape of the Sword".

Cortázar's "The Night Face Up" reminds me of the story of Zhuang Zhou (a.k.a. Chuang Tzu), who fell asleep one day and dreamt he was a butterfly. When he woke up, he wondered whether he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. I have recently mentioned this story in regard to Félix Martí-Ibáñez's "Between Two Dreams", and this is a favorite story of Borges, who includes it in his "Cuentos Brevos". "The Night Face Up" is also similar to "The South", with its time travel elements, and its premise of an injured person in a delirium.

Cortázar's "Secret Weapons" begins, "Strange how people are under the impression that making a bed is exactly yhe same as making a bed, that to shake hands is always the same as shaking hands, that opening a can of sardines is to open the same can of sardines ad infinitum." To which one feels compelled to add, "And to write El Quijote is always the same as writing El Quijote." But what it develops into is a sort of a time warp (somehat like those that used to be featured on "One Step Beyond"), where a character in the present seems to merge with one from the past (the question of which is possessing whom is never clear).

(Cortázar is perhaps best-known as the author of "Blow-Up", upon which Michelangelo Antonioni based his film.)

Week Six: Two by Two

This week covers another favorite theme of Borges: doppelgängers. The stories all deal with doppelgängers in some form or other. First, we return briefly to Edgar Allan Poe with "William Wilson", Poe's story of a man and his double who is apparently his conscience. Poe explicitly wrote to Washington Irving that it was inspired by/based on Irving's piece "An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron", and it has a long line of descendents as well, including (according to some) Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Others see important differences. For example, Stevenson wrote about freeing the negative side of one's personality, not about a separate entity as a conscience.) In cinema, The Student of Prague is part of the heritage of this work as well. (Jerry C. Allen notes this explicitly in his biography of Conrad Veidt, Conrad Veidt: From Caligari to Casablanca.) By the way, the date given for the birthday of the William Wilsons was January 19, 1813. Poe's birthday was January 19, and on occasion he gave 1813 as the year (though it was actually 1809).

A more recent film using this notion was Adaptation, in which there are twin brothers, Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman. In the film, Charlie is a screenwriter who wrote Being John Malkovich and is working on an adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, and Donald is an aspiring screenwriter. Now, in real life, there is a Charlie Kaufman, who is a screenwriter, who wrote Being John Malkovich, and who wrote this film, which is in part an adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. But there is no Donald Kaufman (despite his being listed in the credits as co-writer).

But it gets even more complicated. Donald is writing a script about a serial killer and decides to make the serial killer, the killer's latest victim (imprisoned in a basement), and the cop chasing the killer all the same person (a multiple personality). He seems oblivious to the problems Charlie points out, such as having the cop doing his job at the police station while the victim remains locked in the basement. And he even adds a chase at the end, where the killer on a horse is chased by the cop on a motorcycle!

Charlie (the narrator) also both talks to himself and provides voice-over narration. There is also a recurring song lyric, "Imagine me and you ... so happy together."

And in his novel The Prestige, Christopher Priest gives us four different variations on the doppelgänger theme. (The film based on the novel drops two of them.)

Jorge Luis Borges's "Borges and I" seems at first as if it might be about the distinction between Borges's public persona and his private one: "I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires ...; I see [Borges's] name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary." Then it seems like it is about his literary and non-literary sides. But, unltimately, it seems to be between the past Borges and the presnt one: "Little by little I am giving everything over to him. ... Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the surburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things." Tellingly, all his life Borges tended to refer to himself (or at least the literary part of himself) in the third person, as "Borges" rather than as "I".

Jorge Luis Borges's "The Other" examines this idea in more detail. In 1969, Borges relates, he met a young man on a bench by the Charles River who was Borges himself, but from 1918. The older Borges is convinced of the younger's identity, but the younger insists the elder is part of a dream he (the younger) is having. The story is full of doppelgänger references. The elder asks the younger what books by Dostoevsky he had read; one is The Double. The elder then asks the younger if he can clearly distinguish the characters. The elder manages to convince the younger by quoting a line from Victor Hugo ("L'hydre-univers tordant son corps écaillé d'astres") which the younger admits he could not have created in his own mind. But the younger asks why the elder does not remember this meeting, and the elder cannot answer. At the end of the story, Borges (the elder) has an answer: "The meeting was real, but the other man was dreaming when he conversed with me, and this explains how he was able to forget me; I conversed with him while awake, and the memory of it still disturbs me."

Borges also mentions Heraclitus when he talkes about the Charles River, a refernce to Heraclitus's maxim about time and change, "One cannot step in the same river twice." Borges also quotes "some Greek" as having said, "The man of yesterday is not the man of today." In the "Poetry" lecture in Seven Nights, Borges writes about "the river of Heraclitus, who said that the man of yesterday is not the man of today, who will not be the man of tomorrow." Is the apparently incomplete memory of the elder Borges in "The Other" an explanation of sorts as to why he does not remember the meeting from when he was the younger?

And is the symmetry of "69" in the year of the story accidental?

Jorge Luis Borges's "The Theologians" is included no doubt for the doppelgänger component of the heresy of the Histirones. "[The Histriones] imagined that all men are two men and that the real one is the other, the one in heaven. They also imagined that our acts project an inverted reflection, in such a way that if we are awake, the other sleeps, if we fornicate, the other is chaste, if we steal the other is generous." Note that because the other is in heaven, we are the sinner and the other is in some sense the conscience.

One connection to Borges's work from Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle is the reference to Miguel de Cervantes: [Only one of [the Spanish slaves] interested me: he'd lost an arm, but optimistically said one of his ancestors had lived through the same misadventure and survived to write a romance of chivalry with the arm he had left." There is only one problem with this. Cervantes had only one child, an illegitimate daughter. She had only one child, a daughter who died before she did (in 1652). As the Encyclopedia Britannica put it, "Cervantes is represented solely by his works." Of course, the Brittannica also says that Cervantes was wounded at Lepanto, which "rendered his left hand useless for the rest of his life," whereas most sources say that his left arm was amputated, so maybe they're wrong here as well. (Then again, if his left arm was amputated, that would indeed render his left hand useless for the rest of his life, except possibly as a paperweight|)

The plot could be described as "William Wilson" meets "Martin Guerre". The narrator is a Venetian taken as a slave by the Turks and given to a master that looks just like him. He tells the master all he knows--both about his life, and about science, and in exchange his master tells him of his life. Eventually, the two become, if not indistinguishable, then certainly confusable. But the question of identity really seems secondary to the depiction of the Turkish court and society of the time as seen by a European.

The most notable book Prof. Kadir did not include in his syllabus may well be The Double by Nobel-Prize-winner José Saramago. While watching an old movie on video, the protagonist, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, sees his exact double as an extra playing a hotel clerk. Searching through other films from the same company, he eventually deduces the identity of that actor: Daniel Santa-Clara. When Afonso tries to locate Santa-Clara, though, he cannot find him in the phone book. Eventually he discovers that Daniel Santa-Clara is the screen name of António Clara. At this point, it is useful (if not critical) to know that Tertuliano--in English, Tertullian--is the author of the theory of the Trinity. "Three Persons, One Substance" takes on a whole new level of meaning here, as we see the inter-relationships of Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, Daniel Santa-Clara, and António Clara unfold.

One area that Prof. Kadir missed entirely in this topic is art. Not surprisingly, there are many opportunities for doubles to appear in art. Most obvious might be M. C. Escher's work, especially "Hand with Reflecting Sphere", "Magic Mirror", and "Drawing Hands". However, one thing that the visual arts make clear is that a double in a mirror is not a true double. When the doppelgänger of the protagonist of The Student of Prague steps out of the mirror, the filmmaker had to be very careful to give him clothing and a hairstyle that was symmetric. If the original's hair was parted on the right, then the doppelgänger's would be parted on the left, and he would not be a true doppelgänger, able to deceive others.

Week Seven: One by One--The Total Unit

Of "The Library of Babel" I have written much (some might say too much, so I will not comment on it in itself, but only in conjunction with other works. For example, in "The Aleph", Borges writes, "Alanus de Insulis [speaks] of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere." (This was how Alanus described God.) Later, Blaise Pascal would describe/define Nature/the Universe as "an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere." [Pensées, 1670] And Borges quotes this in "The Library of Babel". (Note that Pascal specifies infinitude, when Alanus does not.)

In "The Aleph" we see several of those hodge-podge lists that Borges is known for. More will appear later in this course in "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", most notably the "Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge" (which divides up all animals, starting with the categories "those that belong to the emperor" and "embalmed ones".

But in "The Aleph" there is more cohesion to the lists. For example, "Daneri had in mind to set to verse the entire face of the planet, and, by 1941, had already dispatched a number of acres of the State of Queensland, nearly a mile of the course run by the River Ob, a gasworks to the north of Veracruz, the leading shops in the Buenos Aires parish of Concepción, the villa of Mariana Cambaceres de Alvear in the Belgrano section of the Argentine capital, and a Turkish baths establishment not far from the well-known Brighton Aquarium."

Borges once said, "I do not believe that the entire dictionary is fit for literary treatment. We can take (for example) three words: 'azulado', 'azulino' and 'azuloso', [all meaning 'bluish']. I believe that 'azulado' can be used in writing because it is in our oral usage. 'Azulino' and 'azuloso'. on the other hand, are words that are in the dictionary, but not in our mouths. Thus it is better not to use 'azulino' or 'azuloso', stumbling blocks to the reader and small surprises that the writer gives.") [pages 155-156, Borges ante el espejo] In "The Aleph" he writes, "[Danieri] had revised them following his pet principle of verbal ostentation: where at first 'blue' had been good enough, he now wallowed in 'azures', 'ceruleans', and 'ultramarines'. The word 'milky' was too easy for him; in the course of an impassioned description of a shed where wool was washed, he chose such words as 'lacteal', 'lactescent'' and even made one up--'lactinacious'."

In both "The Total Library" and "The Aleph" Borges refers to Georg Cantor's "transfinite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole)." If one applies this to the Library itself, one gets the same feeling of infinite regress as one gets from mirrors reflecting each other, smaller and smaller, yet containing the same image each time.

"The Total Library" is the least known of these three pieces, probably because it is non-fiction. But it clearly establishes the basis on which Borges built his Library. The irony is that while Borges clearly acknowledges his debt to all these predecessors, they have been forgotten in this regard and the name that comes to mind when one speaks of an all-encompassing library, or even just "The Library", is Jorge Luis Borges, first and last.

And everyone after Borges who writes of a fantastical library writes in his shadow. From Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose to Walter Moers's The City of Dreaming Books, all carry the echo of "The Library of Babel" within them.

The syllabus was not clear as to whether the entire collection The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kis was included, or just the title story. I suspect it is just the story, since that is what is specifically connected to the idea of the library, the limitless book, and the perfect memory. The fact that "The Encyclopedia of the Dead" (the book described in the story) contains only those people not mentioned in other encyclopedias hints at the concept of "completing" the set of encyclopedias. That is, just as the Total Library or the Library of Babel contain all possible books, a library consisting of all other encyclopedias and "The Encyclopedia of the Dead" would contain the stories of all people (though not all possible people). And the detail of the stories in "The Encyclopedia of the Dead" is reminiscent of the detail in the memory of Funes the Memorius.

There is also the additional hint of the nesting of images in mirrors in the idea that the story is titled "The Encyclopedia of the Dead" and it is about a set of volumes titled "The Encyclopedia of the Dead" (and it happens to be in a collection titled THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD!).

Week Eight: Cipher by Cipher and the Abyss

"Et cetera" is not one piece, but a sort of supplement of eight pieces to the main body of the book A Universal History of Infamy. One problem with Borges is that he is so impossible to classify. Some of his books are obviously fiction (e.g. El aleph), some are obviously non-fiction (e.g. Seven Nights), and some defy classification (e.g., A Universal History of Infamy or The Book of Imaginary Beings). Indeed, the back cover of the Dutton edition of A Universal History of Infamy says, "Ostensibly a series of factual accounts about the lives of noted scoundrels, the book in actuality marked the debut of Borges as a storyteller, using that unique blend of fact, fiction, and pseudo-scholarship that later came to full expression in Borges's world-famed short stories."

One might claim, for that matter, that one of Borges's primary influences was to invent this "pseudo-scholarship". Oh, there may have been traces of it before, but it seems to be that it achieved its first flowering with Borges in the 1930s.

So when Borges says that "A Theologian in Death" is from the "Arcana Coelestia" by Emanuel Swedenborg, one doesn't know whether to believe it or not. However, "The Chamber of Statues" really is a retelling of the 271st/272nd nights of the Thousand and One Nights, and "Tale of the Two Dreamers" is the 351st night. I would also presume that "The Mirror of Ink" is actually from Sir Richard Francis Burton's writings.

"The Wizard Postponed" is notable as having appeared in, of all places, Fantastic Universe (as "The Rejected Sorcerer", March 1960).

"A Double for Mohammed" is based on (or translated from) a work by Emanuel Swedenborg written in 1771. In 1771 no one was worried about the ramifications of any negative comments about Mohammed, nor were they in 1946 when Borges first published this. Now, however, this piece would probably be the subject of some discussion by the publishers before it would be printed. (The primary problem would be the line that "because [Mohammed] strove to rule like God he was deposed and sent away to the south.")

"The Generous Enemy" is a blessing/curse from the "Heimskringla" saga, and is probably more a translation from the German translation than a work of Borges.

"Of Exactitude in Science" addresses the claim that "the map is not the territory" by positing the construction of a map whose scale was 1:1.

In "Partial Enchantments of the Quixote" Borges talks about such techniques as infinite regress in stories, two mirrors facing each others, and a book cover with a picture containing itself. In Borges y la mathemática, Guillermo Martínez adds "Las Meninas" by Diego Velasquez. Clearly, this sort of regress and doubling is characteristic of Borges's work.

Most people are familiar with Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener", and this may be why it was not on the syllabus. But Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas depends on knowledge of this work to understand what Vila-Matas is talking about.

And what he is talking about is something he calls "The Literature of No". This is the phenomenon of writers who write one book, or a few short stories or poems, and are well-received, and people look forward to their next work--but they never write anything else.

This is discussed at length in the film The Stone Reader. In fact, that is what the film is about. An author named Dow Mossman wrote a highly-praised novel titled The Stones of Summer back in 1972. The filmmaker loved the book, but wondered why Mossman apparently never wrote another book, so went on a quest to find Mossman. In the process he talked to a lot of reviewers and academics about what he referred to as "One-and-Done", but which are also known as "One-Book Wonders". Some of these did write elsewhere (Harper Lee in periodicals, J. D. Salinger in short fiction), others had their careers cut short by death (Emily Bronte, John Kennedy O'Toole), but others just stopped (Joseph Heller, Margaret Mitchell, and Dow Mossman).

So what about Bartleby & Co.? Well, Vila-Matas has written 86 short chapters/essays about various authors who seem to be in the third category. They showed early promise, but then decided they "would prefer not to" [write]. This would be a fairly straightforward literary criticism book, except for one detail: not all the authors Vila-Matas writes about are real. (However, when he is writing about real authors, I think he sticks fairly close to the truth.)

As an example, let's look at first few individual chapters:

I found it interesting that there were many reviews of this book on which praised the book apparently without realizing that some of the authors discussed in it were fictitious!

Week Nine: Mid-Term Oral Presentations and Paper Due

I guess I get a break this week. You can consider this article so far to be my paper. :-)

Week Ten: Incipits and Prolo(n)gations

I was unable to find Macedonio Fernández's "Museum of the Novel of Eterna", so I have nothing to say about it.

"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" is a story about a novel titled The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim, whose chapters range over all of India and a variety of characters, and also whose editions vary considerably from each other.

The first point about "The Immortal" is that it is not the same story as "The Immortals". This might seem obvious, but the fact that the latter is in the English edition of The Aleph, while the former is in the Spanish edition of El Aleph, but the English-language collection Labyrinths. "The Immortal" is basically a manuscript purporting to be by someone who turns out not to be immortal, just very long-lived. The author says his labors began in the time of Diocletian (284 C.E.-305 C.E.), but he turns out to be an unreliable--or at least deceptive--narrator, since his life may have begun considerably before that. And he says he is to die soon, meaning that he is not immortal. His adventures range all over the world, just as the book in "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" did.

I say that the narrator's life may have begun much earlier, but while the narrator meets and talks to Homer, he also may be Homer. This seems to echo the idea in Borges's poem "Tú": "Only one man has been born, only one man has died, in all the world." There are even more resonances: both refer to Ulysses, and both to King Harold (though in two different guises, one as conqueror and one as conquered)

Another literary connection is that the narrator in "The Immortal" says, "I recalled that among the Ethiopians it is well known that monkeys deliberately do not speak so they will not be obliged to work...." In "Yzur" Leopold Lugones had written, "the natives of Java attribute the lack of spoken language en monkeys/apes to intentional abstention, not lack of ability. They don't speak, it is said, so that they do not have to work.'" Whether the Javanese have such a legend is unclear to me, but it is typical of Borges that even if it were so, he changes it in the telling, just as he rewrites history in parts of A Universal History of Infamy. This is all significant because Lugones was Borges's predecessor both as the leading Argentian literary figure of his time and as director of the "Library"--though in Lugones's case it was the Library of the National Council of Education and in Borges's case it was the National Library. It is not surprising that Martin S. Stabb in Borges Revisited conflates the two libraries, since Borges does the same in his dedication of Dreamtigers to Lugones. (In his earlier Jorge Luis Borges, Stabb also seems to buy into Borges's story of Bill Harrigan in A Universal History of Infamy as Billy the Kid. Billy the Kid may have been Borges's inspiration for Bill Harrigan, but The Kid's name was William Bonney, or perhaps Henry McCarty, and The Kid's manner of death does not match Harrigan's either.)

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler has been described as the only novel written in the second person, but that is a bit too extreme. While I will admit that there not many of them, there are others (e.g., Howard Blumenthal's The Complete Time Traveler). But the main idea behind If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is the mutability of literature. You start one book, but then you find that some signatures are missing and some duplicated. So you take it back to the bookstore and are told that actually some signatures from another book were accidentally bound in. You ask for a copy of the other book as a replacement. But when you start reading it, you discover it's actually a Cimmerian novel. And so on--just as you start getting involved in the novel you have, something goes wrong and you end up with a different book, unable to ever finish any of them.

Week Eleven: Desultory Symmetries

"The Secret Miracle" could be seen as an examination of the notion of subjective time. Jaromir Hladík is going to be executed by the Nazis. He tries to overcome his fear by living through an infinity of imagined executions, but then asks God for a year to finish his drama "The Enemies". God, with His usual sense of humor, grants him his wish, but only in Hdalík's mind. In his mind, time stops and he is able to finish his composition, even though he leaves no evidence of it. And then he is shot. It is all very reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce's "Incident at Owl Creek Bridge". The symmetry, once assumes, is the extreme repetition of the moment of death and the extreme extension of the instant before death.

"The Widow Ching--Pirate" is based on history, though somewhat unreliably (not too surprising; we already know that Borges is an unreliable narrator). I'd be hard-pressed to say exactly which parts are made up, though, since most references to the pirate seem to be light on details, and often more there as a reference to the Borges story. I am skeptical, though, that there actually was an imperial degree that read, "Men who are cursed and evil, men who profane the bread, men who pay no heed to the clamor of the tax collector or the orphan, men in whose undergarments are stitched the phoenix and the dragon, men who deny the great truths of printed books, men who allow their tears to run towards the North--all these are disrupting the commerce of our rivers and the age-old intimacy of our seas." It is simply too Borgesian a list. Again, I have to deduce the symmetry that Prof. Kadir is referring to, which I assume is between the real pirate the Widow Ching, and the Borgesian creation.

"Narrative Art and Magic" is, at least, a little clearer on symmetries. For example, Borges talks about sympathetic magic: how in primitive societies a barren woman who wants a child will cradle a doll, for example. This is obviously a sort of symmetry. And there is also the symmetry of creating a "willing suspension of disbelief", where an author who wants to have a centaur in his story lays a groundwork for it by describing a forest as "where bears and wolves the centaurs' arrows find," or making some other references that assume that of course there are centaurs. This sets up images of centaurs in the reader's mind that form in some sense a symmetry with the "actual" centaurs when they are introduced.

[Originally, I was unable to find Yu Hua's The Past and the Punishments other than ordering it on-line for something above my limit for this course, so I had nothing to say about it. However I eventually acquired a copy, so I will my comments now.]

"The Past and the Punishments" is thematically related to "The Secret Miracle" in that both have to do with the concept of time, particularly as relating to a punishment or execution. But while Borges concentrates more on the subjective duration of time, Yu Hua sees time as a place, a destination. "The stranger" (as the protagonist is called throughout) is trying to get to March 5, 1965, and the journey is described in spatial terms ("The stranger sidestepped past the old man and continued on his way toward March 5, 1965."). "The punishment expert," on the other hand, seems inspired by Franz Kafka's characters (e.g. the Doorkeeper of the Law), or perhaps the whole dialogue between the stranger and the punishment expert seems Kafkaesque.

"Blood and Plum Blossoms", though linked through a Chinese locale to "The Widow Ching--Pirate", also has a connection to "The Garden of Forking Paths" in that Ruan Haikuo's journey take him to many crossroads and "[each] crossroads would either lead him closer to or take him farther away from Master Blue Cloud and White Rain." However, even when he has decided to go one way at the crossroads, he may find himself going another, indicating that his life (and presumably ours) are governed by some level of predestination (or at least external control) rather than exclusively by free will.

"Predestination" is a child's view of the Cultural Revolution, which is Kafka-esque enough when seen by an adult, but even more so by a child.

Week Twelve: Shifting Sands

Borges's "The Circular Ruins" goes back to the question of whether the butterfly is dreaming the philosopher, or vice versa, or at least whether what appears to be reality is in fact a dream. This is not exactly a new idea--in fact, it is one Borges returns to frequently. And he is ambivalent about it. On the one hand, Borges writes, "Not to be a man, to be a projection of another man's dreams--what an incomparable humiliation, what madness!" But less than a page later, he says, "With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him." So there is humiliation, but also relief.

In "The Zahir" Borges defines the zahir as "beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad". Yes, "zahir" is singular and the definition is plural, because it takes many forms over time. One is a tiger, and with what must be intentional irony Borges writes, "How easy it would be not to think of a tiger!" Why intentional? Because in Borges antes el espejo, Borges is quoted as having once said, "At the end of every year I make myself a promise: the next year I will renounce the labyrinths, the tigers, the knives, the mirrors. But there is nothing to be done--it is something stronger than me. I start to write and, suddenly, up pops a labyrinth, or a bright knife, or a mirror reflecting a face."

One might say that the zahir is a physical version of the meme, of the song one cannot get out of one's head, the idea that won't go away. There are also hints of "Funes the Memorious", with the notion of something that cannot be forgotten. With Funes, of course, it was everything, so one could say that for him the zahir was nothing less than the entire universe.

"The Cult of the Phoenix" is Borges's sly joke, built on double entendres and hidden meanings, of which the most concise example is probably the last paragraph: "I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotés of the Phoenix; I know that the Secret, at first, seemed to them banal, embarrassing, vulgar and (what is even stranger) incredible. They could not bring themselves to admit their parents had stooped to such manipulations. What is odd is that the Secret was not lost long ago; in spite of the vicissitudes of the Universe, in spite of wars and exoduses, it reaches, awesomely, all the faithful. Someone has not hesitated to affirm that it is now instinctive." But hints abound throughout, and even the title itself is a clue (more so in English than in Spanish, but don't forget that Borges was fluent in English).

"The Book of Sand" is the only one of Borges's later short fictions that I would consider canonical. By later, I mean everything after the publication of the collection El Aleph in 1957. And when I would include as canonical: "The Aleph"; "The Babylon Lottery"; "The Book of Sand"; "Death and the Compass"; "Funes the Memorious"; "The Garden of Forking Paths"; "The Library of Babel"; "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"; "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", The Book of Imaginary Beings, and A Universal History of Infamy.

"The Book of Sand" is about a book, but a book that (by implication) encompasses the entire Library of Babel. An infinite number of pages are within the book--though for this to be true, they would have to be infinitesimally thin, and the narrator is apparently able to turn a single page if he wants to. Ultimately, the "Book of Sand" becomes a sort of zahir to the narrator, who desperately desires to dispose of it.

I thought it was odd that only one chapter from Tahar ben Jelloun's novel The Sand Child was included in the syllabus. But "The Blind Troubadour" can stand on its own, and it is possibly the most Borgesian of the third-party items on the syllabus, having as it does Borges as the main character.

The premise of the novel The Sand Child is that an Arab, distresses at having many daughters and no sons, decides to raise his next child as a son, no matter what. "The Blind Troubadour" seems to have no connection to this story, but is rather just an oddly inserted vignette, consisting of Jorge Luis Borges relating an incident from his past. Since the book itself is related by a storyteller, what we have is the storyteller telling a story about Borges telling a story about a woman reading to him from the Koran, a book supposed recited to Mohammed by Allah--tales within tales within tales. And the telling has the usual Borges paradoxes. At the beginning, the storyteller says, "The man who spoke was blind. He did not seem to have a cane--he just rested his hand on a youth's shoulder." Then follows the eleven-page "Tale of Borges" (if you will), after which the storyteller says, "As this old man was speaking, his hands placed one on top of the other on his stick, he was gradually surrounded by people of all sorts. The cafe was becoming a kind of classroom, and he like a university professor giving a lecture to his students." In Spanish, there is something called a "tertulia": a group of friends who meet regularly at a cafe for discussions. So the idea of the cafe becoming a classroom is not as random a morphing as one might think. (Of course, Jelloun wrote The Sand Child in French, so I cannot be sure that he was making this connection.)

The narrator of Gerhard Köpf's There Is No Borges is traveling to a conference where he will be delivering a paper on how Cervantes did not write Don Quixote, but rather that Shakespeare did. This already has resonances with Borges and Pierre Menard, as well as with the debate over whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays. (The narrator also notes that Cervantes and Shakespeare both died on St. George's day, 1616. But what he fails to note is that they actually died ten days apart due to calendar differences between Catholic Spain and Protestant England.)

But on the journey, the narrator meets Christofari, a man who claims that (as the title says) there is no Borges--that Borges was an imaginary character dreamed up by Adolfo Bioy Casares, and that Bioy Casares had hired an actor named Aquiles Scatamacchia to play Borges.

This is all kind of interesting and creative--except it turns out that Köpf didn't invent the idea. In 1981 there was an article by Leonardo Sciascia in the Italisn newspaper "Il Messaggero" claiming that Borges was an invention of a group of writers, including Adolfo Bioy Casares, Leopoldo Marechal, and Manuel Mujica Láinez, and that they hired a "second-rate actor" named Aquiles Scatamacchia to play the role. This notion surfaced a few more times, but apparently never gained any traction in the wider world (all the references on line I can find are in Spanish). It is true that Köpf builds on this base with more than just Sciascia's theory, but I suspect most people reading this, at least outside of Italy, will think that the entire idea originated with Köpf.

There are a lot of references and allusions that almost cry out for an annotated version. For example, the narrator refers to "the son of an Englishman and a woman from Puerto Rico in Rutherford, New Jersey, Ridge Road number 9." This would be Walter Carlos Williams, who lived at that address, but Köpf never names him.

The narrator also refers to an unauthorized sequel to Cervantes's work by someone calling himself Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (but who may have been Lope de Vega). He says that Thomas Mann wrote about this sequel, but since Mann didn't read Spanish, he might have read it in one of the two German translations, which were in turn not made from the Spanish, but from a very loose French translation. All of this is apparently true. (One can never be sure in works like this--it would be so Borgesian to have details like this made up.

At one point, the narrator says, "For me it wasn't a matter of maintaining justice--I'm no Kohlhaas ..." This is a reference to "Michael Kohlhaas", a 1811 novella by Heinrich von Kleist, based on the 16th century story of Hans Kohlhase, and the basis for the film Ragtime. The theme of all of them is a quest for justice.

There is a reference to the Portuguese king's crusade in 1578, on which "he suffered that catastrophic defeat that swept along almost all of Portuguese nobility. The crown fell to the successful Spaniards ..." This refers to a true incident, a crusade in which the Portuguese king died, leaving no legitimate heirs, and the result was that the Spanish took over. European readers are probably more familiar with this than American readers (as they would be with Kohlhaas as well).

The Irsee Convent mentioned, however, is listed in other sources as a monastery. This may be a translation issue, or they may have been both a monastery and a convent there.

Unfortunately (from a Borgesian point of view, anyway), Köpf drifts away from the idea of the non-existence of Borges into other topics. While perhaps interesting in their own right, they carry one away from a consideration of Borges per se.

Week Thirteen: Faith, Language, Agency, and Thanatopraxis

"The Biathanatos" is Borges's analysis of John Donne's essay justifying suicide (or at least some suicides). Borges describes Thomas De Quincey's summary of Donne's argument as being that since some homicides are justifiable, and since suicide is a form of homicide, then it is at least conceivable that some suicides are justifiable. (Logically, we cannot say that this proves some suicides are justifiable: after all, apes are a form of primate and some primates have tails, but no apes have tails.) Donne then goes on to analyze the suicides in the Bible. While Donne devotes considerably more space to that of Samson than that of Jesus, the fact that he does label Jesus's death a suicide does lead to some interesting theological considerations, which Borges extends in more philosophical directions.

In "Time and J. W. Dunne", Borges describes how viewing time as a fourth spatial dimension leads to an infinite regress. As Borges says, "Dunne is a famous victim of that bad intelllectual habit denounced by [Henri] Bergson: to conceive of time as a fourth dimension of space. He postulates that the future already exists and that we must move to it, but that postulate suffices to convert it into space and to require a second time (which is also conceived in spatial form, in the form of a line or a river) and then a third and a millionth. Not one of Dunne's four books fails to propose infinite deimenions of time, but those dimensions are spatial. For Dunne, real time is the unattainable final boundary of an infinite series." (I suspect that in strictly mathematical terms, this would be an infinite sequence, not a series, but I'm not sure if the distinction is made in Spanish, or if the fault is that of the translator (Ruth L. C. Simms).)

I read Parrot's Perch by Michel Rio, but frankly I could not see what connection it had to Borges. Obviously if I had really been taking this course, the lectures and discussions would have made it clearer.

Week Fourteen: Heterocosms and Heterologies

Much has been written about the classification scheme that Borges, in "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" purports to have found in a Chinese encyclopedia: "a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies." It seems an set set of categories, but consider Japanese number classifiers.

In "The Story of Human Language", John H. McWhorter discusses number classifiers, which is where I discovered them. He used Cantonese as an example of a "number classifier language", but I was able to find more information on Japanese, so I will use that.

Japanese has a special classifier (a.k.a. counter word, a.k.a. number word) for counting flat things, a entirely different one for people, another for birds or rabbits, one for small animals other than birds or rabbits, one for small round things, one for generations (distinct from the counter for people in general), and so on.

For example, on a blog someone gave the example: "Thus in Japanese ni-hon no nasu means 'two-roundthing of eggplant', while ni-ko no nasu means 'two-longthing of eggplant', referring to two different varieties of eggplant--one round and the other long, natch. The number ni and the noun nasu are the same in both cases; only the classifiers hon (also used when counting apples) and ko (also used when counting pencils) vary."

(English has some counter words, e.g., "three head of cattle", "two pair of pants") but Japanese has a lot, and they are always required. There is a very long list at

So, really, is Borges's classification scheme any less sensible than the Japanese classifier scheme that divides animals into:

or has categories such as:

One often finds references to "The Library of Babel" in other works of fiction, or to "The Aleph", but references to "Funes, His Memory" (a.k.a. "Funes, the Memorious") are rarer. However, I ran across one while I was reading this syllabus, in "Merridew of Abominable Memory" by Chris Roberson. This is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche which centers around the idea of memory. In it, Watson tells Holmes of an obituary notice: "It is an obituary notice of an Argentinean who, if the story is to be believd, was rather remarkable. Ireneo Funes, dead at the age of twenty-one, is said to have had a memory of such singular character that he could recall anything to which it was exposed. Witnesses are quoted as sayng that he could recall each day of hs life in such detail that the recollection itself took an entre day simply to process."

Roberson also references Pliny the Elder, who discusses memory in Book VII ("Man") of his Natural History. Sections 88-90 claim that Cyrus could name all the soldiers in his army, and that Mithridates once have judgements in twenty-two languages in a day without an interpreter. Charmadas could remember verbatim everything he read.

I have one observation about the title. In Spanish, it is "Funes El Memorioso". In English, it showed up originally as "Funes the Memorious", but lately has been translated "Funes, His Memory". The former is probably more accurate, as "El Memorioso" is a neologism for which one would have to coin a word in English as well.

"The Writing of the God" is also about writing, but not about language in the same sense as in "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins". In some sense it ties in more closely with some of the stories from other weeks as being what Gene H. Bell-Villada refers to as the "literature of imprisonment" (e.g., "The Secret Miracle"). The idea of language as magical is an old one, with the magic sometimes being God's name, and sometimes just a magical set of words.

When I got this syllabus, I looked for Michel Foucault's "Preface" to The Order of Things: An Archaelogy of the Human Sciences, but could not find one. However, somewhere in the middle of my reading I ran across a reference in what one might think a most unlikely place, and that gave me enough information and pointers that I understand why it was included here.

The reference I found was in What Science Knows and How It Knows It by James Franklin where, when he is talking about classification systems, mentions that "the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges imagined the 'Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,' a Chinese encyclopedia that classified animals according to the scheme": "a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies."

Franklin then claims, "Michel Foucault and some of his followers made fools of themselves by appearing to believe the encyclopedia was real, leading to justified complaints about the degeneracy of the postmodernist academy." (This would have been in 1970, a quarter of a century before Alan Sokal's 1996 hoax article in Social Text, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformational Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".

Now, according to Keith Windschuttle, Foucault writes that, "thanks to 'the wonderment of this taxonomy,' we can apprehend not only 'the exotic charm of another system of thought' but also 'the limitation of our own.' What the taxonomy or form of classification reveals, says Foucault, is that 'there would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture ... that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think.' The stark impossibility of our thinking in this way, Foucault says, demonstrates the existence of an entirely different system of rationality." Windschuttle goes on to relate that in one seminar, someone cited Foucault and the Chinese taxonomy. As Windschuttle puts it, "Didn't I realize, he chided, that other cultures have such dramatically different conceptual schemes that traditional assumptions of Western historiography are inadequate for the task of understanding them?"

Clearly the person at the seminar believed the Emporium to be real. However, what is quoted from Foucault above, and what else I can find of what Foucault himself actually wrote doesn't quite support the notion that Foucault was taken in. For example, Foucault says (of The Order of Things), "This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I first read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought.... In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehended in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. ... What is impossible is not the propinquity of the things listed, but the very site on which their propinquity would be possible. The animals '(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush'-where could they ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it? Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language?"

Two points: Foucault refers to the Emporium as a "fable", and he says that some of the items on the list could only be juxtaposed in "the non-place of language," that is, the fictional world of literature.

In other words, as far as I can tell, there is not much evidence that Foucault actually thought the Emporium to be real, and without further evidence, Franklin's claim does not hold up.

Franklin gives his own critique of the Emporium from a scientific standpoint: it has too much "self-reference, wildy different sizes of categories, a combination of objective and human-focused principles, [and] a mixture of the existent and the nonexistent." I'm not sure all of these are valid complaints: the Linnaean sysem of classification has wildy different sizes of categories, and (arguably) a mixture of the existent and the nonexistent, at least to the extent that it encompasses extinct plants and animals.

And if one goes back to the Japanese number classifications, the categories there vary greatly in size and also do not have uniform determinants. (By the latter I mean, for example, a system of classifying animals based on number of legs, or on body mass.) That does not make the Japanese system any less real, and indeed, Borges could have put it in his essay with little change on the effect.

Lawrence Weschler's book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders is about David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. In 2005, I visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology (9341 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, CA, 310-836-6131,, so I will start with my impressions of that. When one enters, one sees a motley assortment: a mole skeleton; a fruit stone carving; an exhibit on Geoffrey Sonnabend and his "Obliscence Theory of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter"; another exhibit on Eugene Dubois and picanthropus erectus; and a presentation on Bernard Maston, Donald R. Griffith, and the "deprong mori of the Tripsicum Plateau"; and the micromosaics of Henry Dalton. One discovers that (according to Athanaseus Kircher) the reason the Tower of Babel was destroyed was because it would have been so big that it would have made the earth tip over and move from the center of the universe. Actor and magician Ricky Jay contributed the materials for "Rotten Luck: Failing Dice from the Collection of Ricky Jay," a study of how dice decay.

So what is this place? I described it originally as part art museum, part science museum, part participatory dramatics. And Lawrence Weschler wrote an entire book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, trying to explain it. Weschler sees it more as an extension or continuation of the "Wunderkammern" of "Cabinets of Wonder" that became popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Weschler actually tried to track down the various sources cited in the Museum, and to research the types of things there. So he discovered, for example, that while he cannot see the details on the fruit stone carving on display at the Museum (because there is no magnification), there really was such an art form, and there are numerous examples in the Ashmolean and other "real" museums. And so it goes. Each exhibit first seems completely real. Then, as one examines it, it starts to dawn on the viewer that it can't possibly be real. And then you read in Weschler's book that it is real, or that at least a large part of it is real.

Marcia Tucker (of New York's New Museum) says of David Wilson, "He never ever breaks irony. . . . When you're in there with him, everything initially just seems self-evidently what it is. There's this fine line, though, between knowing you're experiencing something and sensing that something is wrong. There's this slight slippage, which is the essence of the place."

Weschler connects this whole phenomenon to a variety of literary and artistic imaginings, including Donald Evans's stamps and Jorge Luis Borges's "Tlöaut;n, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", and cites the same Borges line that I quoted in my comments on that story: "The metaphysicians of Tlon are not looking for truth, not even an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement." They would have loved David Wilson and his Museum of Jurassic Technology.

I suppose Prof. Kadir did not include "Tlöaut;n, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" here because it was alreay included earlier. What is interesting is that he has included a non-literary work. Oh, Weschler's work is a book, all right, but what is really being included here is David Wilson's creation. Alas, probably most of Prof. Kadir's class at Penn State will never get a chance to see the actual museum, so I suppose Wechsler's book is the next best thing.

(As of 2010, the Museum is still open, and is actually open more hours than when Wechsler wrote the book in 1995; it is now open Thursday evenings and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday noon to 6PM. It is very much a museum of its creator, so I suspect that it will not exist in another thirty years.)

"An Anthropologist on Mars" is by Oliver Sacks, but the title originates with its primary subject, Temple Grandin, a specialist in animal behavior who is also perhaps the best-known "high-performing" person with autism. Sacks sees these two aspects of Grandin as somewhat paradoxical, since one of the effects of autism is that it makes it difficult--in fact, often impossible)--for its victims to comprehend the meaning of many human behaviors. For example, someone with autism could see another person crying and not realize that meant that the person was sad (or, again paradoxically, happy). In fact, they might not even be able to explain what "sad" or "happy" was. Hence, Grandin describes herself as being like "an anthropologist on Mars." Not surprisingly, a lot of people with autism who are science fiction fans are big fans of Mr. Spock and Data in "Star Trek".

Autism has another (or perhaps it's really the same) aspect: people with autism see the world "slightly skewed". Grandin looks at the night sky and doesn't see (or even understand) any of the usual poetic images people without autism see. But this is not one-sided: what she sees is not something that those without autism can understand either.

All of this seems very connected to the whole idea of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where everything is slightly "off" from our understanding of the world. And autism has another relation to Borges's stories, in that those with autism often have unusual memories, perhaps not as complete as Funes, but certainly more so than the average person's. For example, if you ask someone how many cars were in the store's parking lot, they might answer, "About fifty." But someone with autism might well reply, "Twenty-one black, twelve beige, four red, two blue, and one green." At one point when Grandin gave directions to Sacks, he stopped her and asked about the last direction, at which point she repeated the entire set of directions from the beginning.

(The essay "To See and Not See" in Sacks's collection titled An Anthropologist on Mars also has references to Borges in its footnotes.)

Week Fifteen: Term Presentations and Papers Due

Well, here it is, my term paper.

[This course took me considerably longer than a semester. (Actually, it was more like fifteen months.) There were a variety of reasons for this, but part of it is obviously that the lack of an externally imposed schedule makes it easy to let things slide.]

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