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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Borges (41)

Friday
Dec302016

Borges, "Ajedrez"

A work ("Chess") by this Argentine man of letters.  You can read the original here.

I

So grave, so cold these corners whence
Slow pieces move upon a slate;
Til dawn they hold the masters tense, 
So do two shades each other hate.

The magic rules like spells are cast                                 
Through forms: Homeric rooks, fleet knights,              
Thick queens-at-arms as kings stay last,  
Aggressive pawns and bishops slight.

And once the players have departed
Consumed by time as if by fire,
The rite will certainly not end.

In the red East a war had started     
Whose stage was now the world entire,
A game too of infinite bend.

II

Faint king, fierce queen, and bishop skew, 
Straight rook in league with cunning pawn, 
Across the black and white path drawn, 
They seek and launch their armored crew. 

Not knowing of the telltale hand 
Of destiny long since foreseen, 
And that these laws adamantine
Subject their will and work to man. 

Each player sits imprisoned, squeezed
(Khayyam so said) on other charts,
Of blackest nights and whitest days.

God moves the hand that moves the piece, 
But then what god past Him shall start  
This game of dust, time, sleep, and pain? 

http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/index3.htm
Sunday
Nov272016

Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 2)

The conclusion to the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

The final periods, made more somber by oratory pauses, were supposed to be eloquent; Unwin guessed that Dunraven had tried them out many times with identical aplomb and identical inefficacy. In feigned interest he asked: “How did the lion and the slave die?” The incorrigible voice answered with somber satisfaction: “They too had their faces destroyed.” The noise of their steps was now joined by the noise of the rain. Unwin thought that they would have to sleep in the labyrinth, in the central chamber of the story, and that this great inconvenience would be an adventure in his memory. He kept silent; Dunraven couldn’t contain himself and, like someone who cannot forget a debt, asked him: “Isn’t this story inexplicable?” As if thinking aloud, Unwin answered: “I don’t know whether it is explicable or inexplicable. But I know it is a lie.”

Dunraven broke into a litany of filth, then invoked the testimony of the eldest son of the rector (who, it seems, had died) and of all the neighbors of Pentreath. No less astonished than Dunraven, Unwin apologized. In the darkness, time seemed to run on and on; the two men were afraid that they had strayed from the path and were very tired when a thin clearing above showed them the first steps of a narrow stairway. They went up and came upon a circular room in ruins. Two signs of the ill-fated king’s fear persisted: a constricted window ruling over the uplands and the sea, and in the ground a trap door that opened over the curve of the stairway. The room, however spacious, had much of a prison cell about it.

Urged on less by the rain than by an eagerness to live through memory and narrative, the friends spent the night in the labyrinth. The mathematician slept in tranquility, but not the poet, plagued by verses his mind deemed detestable:

Faceless the sultry and overpowering lion,
Faceless the stricken slave, faceless the king
.

Unwin believed that the story of Bojarí’s death had not interested him; nevertheless he awoke with the conviction of having deciphered it. That whole day he was preoccupied and unsociable, adjusting and readjusting the pieces. And two nights later, he summoned Dunraven to a London brewery and told him these words or words like these: “In Cornwall I said the story I heard from you was a lie. The facts were certain, or could be certain, but recounted as you recounted them they were very clearly lies. I will start with the greatest lie of them all, that of the incredible labyrinth. A fugitive does not hide in a labyrinth. Nor does he have one built on a high point on the coast, a crimson labyrinth which sailors could see from far off. If someone truly wished to hide, London would be a better labyrinth than a vantage point to which all the corridors of a building led. The wise reflection to which I now subject you came to me last night as we listened to the rain fall upon the labyrinth and waited for a dream to visit us; admonished and bettered, I chose to forget your absurdities and think about something sensible.”

“The theory of mathematical sets, let’s say, or the fourth dimension of space,” observed Dunraven. “No,” said Unwin in all seriousness, “I thought about the labyrinth of Crete. The labyrinth whose center was a man with the head of a bull.” Well versed in detective fiction, Dunraven thought that the solution to a mystery was always inferior to the mystery itself.  The mystery took part in the supernatural, if not in the divine, while the solution was the game of human hands. To postpone the inevitable, he said: “On medals and in sculpture it is the Minotaur who has the head of a bull. Yet Dante imagined him with the body of a bull and the head of a man.” “This version works for me, as well,” agreed Unwin. “What matters is the correspondence of the monstrous house to the monstrous inhabitant. The Minotaur wholly justified the existence of the labyrinth. No one would say the same thing about a threat perceived in a dream. Once the image of the Minotaur was evoked (a fatal evocation in the event there was a labyrinth), the problem was for all intents and purposes resolved. I confess, however, I did not understand that this ancient image was the key, and as such was necessary for your story to grant me an even more precise symbol: that of the spider’s web.”

“The spider’s web?” repeated Dunraven, perplexed.

“Yes. It would not astonish me in any way to learn that the spider’s web (the universal form of the web, we understand, the web of Plato) could have suggested to the assassin (for there is an assassin) his crime. You will recall that el Bojarí, in a tomb, dreamt of a web of serpents and that upon waking he discovered the dream had been prompted by the web of a spider. Let us return to that night when el Bojarí dreamt of this web. The vanquished king, the vizier, and the slave flee to the desert with their treasure. They seek refuge in a tomb. The vizier, whom we know to be a coward, sleeps; but sleep does not come to the king, whom we know to be valiant. So as not to share his treasure with the vizier, the king kills him with a dagger; the vizier’s shadow menaces him in his dreams for nights thereafter. All this is unbelievable. I understand the events to have happened another way. That night it was the king, the valiant king, who slept; and it was Zaid the coward who lay awake. To sleep is to be distracted from the universe, a distraction difficult for those who know they are being pursued by drawn swords. Greedy, Zaid leaned over the sleep of his king. He thought of killing him (perhaps even fumbled with his dagger), but did not dare. He called the slave, and they hid part of the treasure in the tomb and fled to Suakin and then England. Visible from the sea he built an old labyrinth with red walls, not to hide from el Bojarí but to lure him and kill him. He knew that ships at the ports of Nubia would bring rumors of the red-haired man, the slave, and the lion, and that sooner or later el Bojarí would come to look for him in his labyrinth. In the final corridor of the web awaited the trap. El Bojarí underestimated him severely; he did not stoop to take the least precaution. The coveted day arrived.  Abenjacán landed in England, made his way to the door of the labyrinth, considered the blind corridors, and had already set foot, perhaps, on the first steps when his vizier killed him, maybe with a bullet from the trap. The slave would then kill the lion and another bullet would kill the slave. Then Zaid disfigured their three faces with a stone. He had to do it this way; one body with a disfigured face would have hinted at a problem of identity, but here the beast, the black man and the king formed a series and, given the first two terms, the last would be assumed by everyone. It is not strange that he was seized by fear when talking to Allaby; he had just finished carrying out his horrible task and was preparing to flee England to recover his treasure.”

A thoughtful, or perhaps incredulous, silence followed the words of Unwin. Dunraven requested another tankard of stout before commenting.

“I accept,” he said, “that my Abenjacán is Zaid. Such a metamorphosis, you will say, is one of the genre’s classic artifices, a true convention whose detection makes demands on the reader. What I hesitate to admit is that a portion of the treasure remained in the Sudan. Remember that Zaid fled from the king and the enemies of the king; it is simpler to imagine him absconding with all the treasure than delaying himself by burying a part of it. Perhaps there no coins were found because there were no coins remaining. The bricklayers had exhausted a fortune that, in contrast to the red gold of the Nibelung Alberich, was not infinite. So we would have to see Abenjacán crossing the sea to reclaim a dilapidated treasure.”

“Not dilapidated,” said Unwin. “Invested in a land of infidels in the arming of a large circular trap of bricks designed to lure and annihilate him. If your conjecture is correct, Zaid was urged on by hate and fear and not by avarice. He stole the treasure and then understood that the treasure was for him not the essential part. The essential part was that Abenjacán would die. He imitated Abenjacán, killed Abenjacán, and in the end was Abenjacán."

“Yes,” confirmed Dunraven. “He was a vagabond who one day, before being nobody at death, would remember having been or having pretended to be a king.”

Friday
Nov252016

Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 1)

A translation of the first half of the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

... They are comparable to the spider who builds a house.  

                                                                                    — The Koran, XXIX,  40

“This,” said Dunraven with a great gesture that did not refuse the cloudy stars but covered the black upland, the sea, and a majestic and decrepit structure that seemed to be a rundown stable, “is the land of my elders.”  Unwin his companion removed a pipe from his mouth and emitted some modest and approving sounds. It was the first evening of the summer of 1914; tired of a world without the dignity of danger, the friends appreciated the solitude of this corner of Cornwall. Cultivating a dark beard, Dunraven was the author of a considerable epic which his contemporaries almost could not scan and whose motif had not yet been revealed. Unwin had published a study of the theory that Fermat had not written in the margin of one of Diophantus’s pages. Both of them — could what I say be true? — were young, absentminded and impassioned.

“It will be a quarter of a century,” said Dunraven, “since Abenjacán el Bojarí, the leader or king of some or other Nilotic tribe, died in the central chamber of that house at the hands of his cousin Zaid. Now years later, the circumstances of his death continue to be murky."

Unwin tamely asked why.

“For many reasons,” was the answer. “In the first place, that house is a labyrinth. In the second place, the house was under the watchful eyes of a slave and a lion. In the third place, a secret treasure vanished. In the fourth place, the assassin was already dead when the murder took place. In the fifth place …”

Tired, Unwin stopped him.

“Don’t multiply the mysteries,” he said to him. “They ought to be simple. Recall Poe’s purloined letter and the locked room of Zangwill.”

“Or the universe remembers complicated things,” replied Dunraven.

Sloping over sandy hills, they had arrived at the labyrinth. As they approached, there appeared a straight and almost interminable wall, bricks without end, almost as high as a man. Dunraven said that it had the form of a circle, but its area was so dissipated that you could not perceive its curves. Unwin mentioned Nicholas of Cusa, for whom all straight lines were the arc of an infinite circle … Towards midnight they discovered a door in ruins which gave onto a blind and perilous hallway. Dunraven said that inside the house there were numerous crossroads, but that if they kept left, they would arrive in a little more than an hour in the center of the web. Unwin agreed. Their cautious steps resonated in the stone floor; the corridor forked into other, narrower corridors. The house seemed as if it wanted to drown them, the ceiling was very low. They had to advance one after the other through the complications of darkness. Unwin went along slowly. Dulled by the roughness and angles, his hand flowed endlessly along the invisible wall. Slowed in the somberness, Unwin heard the story of the murder of Abenjacán from the mouth of his friend.

“Perhaps the oldest of my memories,” related Dunraven, “is that of Abenjacán el Bojarí in the cove of Pentreath. He was followed by a black man with a lion; they were doubtless the first black man and the first lion my eyes had ever seen, apart from the engravings in the Scriptures. So I was a boy, but the beast the color of the sun and the man the color of night impressed me less than Abenjacán. To me he seemed very tall; he was olive-skinned with black, half-closed eyes, an insolent nose, fleshy lips, a saffron beard, and proud chest, sure and silent in his gait. At home I said: ‘A king and a vessel have arrived.’ Later, when the bricklayers were working, I enhanced this title and made him the King of Babel.

“The news that the stranger had installed himself in Pentreath was received with pleasure; the extension and form of his house with astonishment, if not with scandal. Few seemed to accept that a residence of one person might have leagues and leagues of corridors. ‘Moors might have such houses, but not Christians,’ said the people. Our rector, Mr. Allaby, a man of strange learning, exhumed the history of a king whom the Divinity castigated for having erected a labyrinth and spouted such information from the pulpit. That Monday, Abenjacán visited the rectory; the circumstances of the brief interview were not known at that time, but no more sermons ever alluded to its grandeur, and the moor was able to hire the bricklayers. Years later, when Abenjacán was killed, Allaby made known to the authorities the substance of their dialogue.

“Abenjacán told him, standing, these words or words like these: ‘No longer can anyone censure what I do. The sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to repeat for centuries the Ultimate Name of God, it would not be sufficient to mitigate even one of my torments; the sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to kill you with these hands, it would not worsen the torments of Infinite Justice to which I am destined. My name is unknown in all lands; I am Abenjacán el Bojarí and I have ruled the tribes of the desert with an iron scepter. For many years and with the assistance of my cousin Zaid, I despoiled them; but God heard their clamor and allowed them to rebel. My peoples were worn out and riddled with stab wounds; I managed to flee with the treasure collected in my years of exploitation. Zaid guided me to the tomb of a saint at the foot of a mountain of stone. I ordered my slave to watch over the face of the desert; then Zaid and I were overcome by sleep. That night I dreamt I was imprisoned by a web of serpents. Waking in horror, I found Zaid sleeping at my side as dawn appeared. The friction of a spider’s web on my flesh had made me dream such a dream. It pained me to see that Zaid, who was a coward, was sleeping so restfully. I came to think that the treasure was not infinite and that he might claim a share. In my belt was a dagger with a silver hilt; I unsheathed it and cut his throat. In his agony he gurgled forth some words I could not hear. I looked at him; he was dead, but I feared he would rise so I ordered the slave to smash his face with a rock. Then we wandered underneath the sky and one day we came across a sea. On it sailed very tall ships; I thought that a dead man would not be able to walk through water and decided to look for other lands. The first night we sailed I dreamt that I killed Zaid. Everything repeated itself, but this time I heard his words. He said: I will blot out your dregs, wherever you may be. I swore I would thwart this threat; I would hide in the center of a labyrinth until his ghost was gone.'

"That said he went on his way. Allaby tried to convince himself that the moor was crazy and that this absurd labyrinth was a symbol of and clear testimony to his madness. Then he thought that this explanation coincided with the extravagant construction and extravagant story, but not with the energetic impression with which Abenjacán left the man. Perhaps such stories were common in the sandy regions of Egypt, perhaps such rarities corresponded (like Pliny’s dragons) less to a person than to a culture … In London Allaby reexamined back issues of the Times; he checked the truthfulness of the rebellion and the subsequent defeat of el Bojarí and his vizier, who was rumored to be a coward.

"Hardly had the bricklayers concluded their work when he installed himself at the center of the labyrinth. He was no longer seen in the village; sometimes Allaby feared that Zaid had managed to reach him and annihilate him. At night the wind brought us the lion’s roar, and the sheep of the fold squeezed together with old fear.

"Then ships from oriental ports were said to have dropped anchor at the small bay, direction either Cardiff or Bristol. The slave came down from the labyrinth (which then, I recall, was not pink but crimson in color), exchanged some African words with the crews, and appeared to be looking among the faces of the men for the ghost of the vizier. It was rumored that these ships carried contraband, and if alcohol and ivory, why not then shadows of the dead?

"Three years after the house was erected, the Rose of Sharon dropped anchor at the foot of the hills. I was not one of those who saw this ship, and maybe in the image I have of it lurk lithographs of Abu Qir and Trafalgar. But, in any case, I understand it to be one of those elaborate ships that do not appear to be the work of seamen but of carpenters, and more of cabinetmakers than of carpenters. It was (if not actually, then in my dreams) burnished, dark, silent, and stealthy, and manned by Arabs and Malays.

"It dropped anchor at dawn on an October day. Towards dusk, Abenjacán burst into Allaby’s house. He was seized by the passion of terror; hardly could he articulate that Zaid had entered the labyrinth and that his slave and his lion had been killed. He then asked in all seriousness whether the authorities would be able to protect him. He left before Allaby could answer, as if plagued by the same terror which had driven him to this house for the second and last time. Allaby, alone in his library, thought in astonishment that this frightened creature had oppressed tribes in the Sudan and knew that fighting and dying were two different matters. The next day he noticed that the ship had already set sail (direction Suakin in the Red Sea, it was later learned). He thought it over and decided that it was his duty to verify the slave’s murder, so he set off to the labyrinth. El Bojarí’s breathless tale seemed fantastic, but at a bend of the galleries he came upon the lion, and the lion was dead; at another bend he found the slave, who was also dead; and at the central chamber he came upon el Bojarí, whose face had been destroyed. At the man’s feet was a chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl; someone had forced the lock and not a single coin remained."

Friday
Sep022016

Borges, "Los espejos"

A work ("Mirrors") by this Argentine man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Not only crystal brings me fear,       
Impenetrable shadow's sight,                        
All mirrors end and start in fright,           
The unreal space reflected near.

Before the glass-like water's hoax:             
Another blue, the deepest sky;                 
At times sliced through by motion's lie:     
Inverted birds or ripple's coax.

Before the silent surface black,             
Untrammeled smoothness in soft sheets,                 
Dreamlike warm whiteness then repeats     
Of marble pale and faintest rose.

And now so many years have past      
Of roaming by the fickle moon;           
I ask myself what chance assumed    
That mirrors would leave me aghast.

Mirrors of metal, mirrors in masks,        
Mahogany, which in the mists                 
In reddish dusk through smoke persists,
This face which answers and which asks,

Unending, fatal, sleepless faces,
Fulfiller of an ancient pact, 
They multiply within the act
A world awash in selfsame traces.

Expanding this vain, doubtful sky  
Within their web at dizzying height,      
Their fog will sometimes cloud the night        
The breath of someone yet to die.

The crystal waits.  And if there hangs    
A mirror in my room's four walls,              
I'm not alone, my double calls:           
His fate held tight in dawn's white fangs.

And once occurred, all things are cleft                          
From crystal boxes but made for show;                  
Where fictive rabbis long ago                    
Read verse and prose from right to left.

And Claudius, an evening's king,             
A king in dream  at least until                
An actor wore his guilty frill,                    
A silent art, a portrait's sting.

How strange it is that mirrors live,                    
And that we dream! Strange that our days    
Each feed on the deceptive haze                               
Reflected in that deepest grid.

And God, I've come to think, might coat                   
Our architecture with hope's sheen,                            
And light this ebony unseen                             
With crystal lands in thoughts remote.

And God has armed the night with dreams               
And mirror forms in countless waves,                       
So that man's mind thinks we are shades, 
Reflections vain.  Hence come our screams.

Saturday
Jun112016

Tres versiones de Judas

A short story ("Three versions of Judas") by this Argentine.  You can read the original here.

In Asia Minor or Alexandria, in the second century of Our Faith, when Basilides was publishing that the cosmos was the reckless or wicked improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg might have directed, with a singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Perhaps Dante would have confined him to a sepulcher of fire; perhaps his name would have augmented the catalogues of minor heresiarchs, somewhere between Satornil and Carpocrates; perhaps some fragment of his sermons, exonerated of all slander, would have remained in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses, or have perished when the fire of a monastic library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God dispatched him to the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. Here, in 1904, the first edition of Kristus och Judas (Christ and Judas) was published; here, in 1909, his seminal work Den hemlige Frälsaren (The Secret Savior) (the latter has a German version, composed in 1912 by Emili Schering and called Der heimliche Heiland).  

Before attempting an examination of the aforecited works, I should reiterate that Nils Runeberg, member of the National Evangelical Union, was profoundly religious. In a cenacle in Paris or even in Buenos Aires, a literary man could very well rediscover the theses of Runeberg; were these theses to be promulgated during this same cenacle, however, they would be nothing more than flimsy exercises in negligence and blasphemy. Yet for Runeberg they composed the key to deciphering theology's central mystery: material for meditation and analysis, for historical and philological controversy, for arrogance, for jubilation, for terror. They justified and ruined his life. Whoever peruses this article should also consider that neither Runeberg's conclusions, nor his dialectics, nor his proofs may register. Indeed, an observer may believe that his conclusion undoubtedly preceded his "proofs." Who now would resign himself to seeking out proofs for something he does not believe, or whose message leaves him indifferent?    

The first edition of Kristus och Judas bore this categorical epigraph, whose sense, years later, Nils Runeberg himself would monstrously expand: Not one thing, but everything which tradition attributes to Judas Iscariot is false (De Quincey, 1857). Preceded by a certain German, De Quincey speculated that Judas betrayed Jesus Christ to force him to declare his divinity and ignite a vast rebellion against the Roman yoke; Runeberg, however, suggests a vindication of a metaphysical kind. Skilfully he begins to highlight the superfluity of Judas's act. He observes (as had Robertson) that in order to identify a master who preached daily in the synagogue and who performed miracles before thousands of people, no treason on the part of an apostle is required. It, nevertheless, occurred. Supposing there to be an error in the Scriptures is intolerable; no less tolerable is admitting an accidental fact into the most beautiful event in world history. Therefore, Judas's betrayal was not accidental: it was a prefigured act which has its mysterious place in the economy of Salvation.

Runeberg goes on: the Word, when it was made flesh, passed from ubiquity to space, from eternity to history, from unbounded happiness to change and flesh; for such a sacrifice it was necessary that a man, who would represent all men, make a sacrifice of condign worth. Judas Iscariot was this man. Judas alone among the Apostles intuited the secret divinity and terrible purpose of Jesus. The Word had been reduced to something mortal; Judas, disciple of the Word, could reduce himself to an informer (the worst crime in infamy) and become host to the unquenchable fire. The lower order is a mirror of the upper order; the forms of the earth correspond to the forms of heaven; our skin's blemishes are a map of the incorruptible constellations; and in some way Judas reflects Jesus. Hence come the thirty coins and the kiss; hence comes voluntary death all the more to merit Damnation. In this way Nils Runeberg elucidated the enigma of Judas.  

Theologians of all confessions refuted Runeberg's explanation. Lars Peter Engström accused him of not knowing, or of omitting, the hypostatic union; Axel Borelius, of renewing the heresy of Docetism, which negated the humanity of Jesus; the mordant Bishop of Lund, of contradicting the third verse of Chapter 22 in the Gospel of Luke.

These assorted anathemas influenced Runeberg, who partially rewrote the condemned book and modified his doctrine. He abandoned to his adversaries all theological terrain and put forth oblique reasonings of moral order. He admitted that Jesus, "who had at his disposal the considerable resources that Omnipotence might offer," did not need a man to redeem all men. Later, he countered those who claimed we knew nothing about the inexplicable traitor; we do know, he said, that he was one of the Apostles, one of those selected to announce the Kingdom of Heaven, to heal the sick, to cleanse the lepers, to raise the dead, and to cast out devils (Matthew 10:7-8; Luke 9:1).

A man so distinguished from others by the Redeemer deserves from us the best interpretation of his acts. To impute his crime to avarice (as have so many others, with reference to John 12:6) is to resign ourselves to the most torpid of motives. Nils Runeberg proposes the opposite motive: hyperbolic and unlimited asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, vilifies and mortifies the flesh; Judas did the same thing to the spirit. He renounced honor, good, peace, the Kingdom of Heaven, just like others, less heroically, renounced pleasure.* He premeditated his sins with terrible lucidity. In adultery, abnegation and tenderness should take part; in homicide, courage; in profanities and blasphemy, a certain Luciferian refulgence. Judas chose certain sins not visited with any virtue: the abuse of trust (John 12:6), and betrayal. He labored in gigantic humility, believing himself unworthy of being good. Paul wrote: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord (1 Corinthians, 1:31); Judas sought Hell, because the happiness of the Lord was enough for him. He thought that happiness, like good, was a divine attribute, and ought not to be usurped by man.**               

Many have discovered, post factum, that in Runeberg's justifiable beginnings lies his extravagant end. They have also discovered that The Secret Savior is a mere perversion or exasperation of Christ and Judas. Towards the end of 1907, Runeberg ended and revised the handwritten text; almost two years passed before he would give it in for printing. In October of 1909 the book appeared with a prologue – one tepid to the point of enigmatic – by the Danish Hebraist Erik Erfjord, and with this perfidious epigraph: He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not (John 1:10). The general argument is not complete, even if the conclusion is monstrous. God, argues Nils Runeberg, reduced himself to being a man for the salvation of the human race; one may feasibly suppose that the sacrifice he undertook was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit his sufferings to the agony endured for one afternoon on a cross is blasphemous.*** To claim that he was man and was incapable of sin contains a contradiction: the attributes of impeccabilitas and humanitas are not compatible. Kemnitz admits that the Redeemer could feel fatigue, cold, embarrassment, hunger, and thirst; he also admits he could sin and lose himself. The famous text

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness .... He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:2-3)

is for many a previsioning of the Crucified in the hour of His death; for some (for instance, Hans Lassen Martensen), a refutation of the beauty public consensus attributes to Christ; for Runeberg, this detail prophesied not one moment but all of the atrocious future, in time and in eternity, of the Word which was made flesh. God became man utterly, to infamy, to reprobation, to the very abyss. To save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies woven through the perplexed web of history: He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus. But He chose a negligible destiny: He chose Judas. 

In vain the bookstores of Stockholm and Lund put forth this revelation. Skeptics considered it, a priori, to be an insipid and laborious theological game; theologians disdained it. Runeberg intuited in this ecumenical indifference an almost miraculous confirmation. God ordered this indifference; God did not wish His terrible secret to be divulged on earth. Runeberg understood that the hour had not come; he sensed that ancient divine curses were converging upon him; he recalled Elijah and Moses, who upon the mountain had covered their faces so as not to see God; he recalled Isaiah, who was terrified when his eyes saw Him whose glory fills the earth; he recalled Saul, whose eyes remained blind on the road to Damascus; he recalled the rabbi Simoen ben Azzai, who saw Paradise and died; he recalled the famous sorcerer John of Viterbo, who, once he could see the Trinity, went completely mad; he recalled the Midrashim, who loathed the impious who pronounced the Shem Hamephorash, the Secret Name of God. Wasn't he possibly guilty of this same dark crime? Might this have been the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, that which may not be forgiven (Matthew 12:31)? Valerius Soranus died for having divulged the secret name of Rome. What infinite punishment awaited him for having discovered and divulged the secret name of God?

Drunk on insomnia and vertiginous dialectics, Nils Runeberg roamed the streets of Malmö, shouting and pleading that his merciful destiny be the sharing of Hell with the Redeemer.         

He died from an aneurysm on March 1, 1912. Heresiologists perhaps will remember him; to our notion of the Son, which seemed exhausted, he added the complications of evil and misfortune.

-------------------------------------------- 

* Borelius asks mockingly: Why didn't he renounce renouncing? Why is renouncing not to be renounced?

** Euclydes da Cunha, in a book unknown to Runeberg, notes that, for the heresiarch of Canudos, Antonio Conselheiro, virtue "was almost an impiety." Argentine readers will recall analogous passages in the works of Almafuerte. Runeberg published, in the symbolic leaflet 
Sju insegel (Seven seals), a serialized descriptive poem, The Secret Water. The first stanzas narrate the facts of a tumultuous day; the last, the finding of a glacial pond. The poet suggests that the endurance of this silent water corrects our useless violence and in some way permits and absolves it. The poem concludes thus: The water of the forest is happy; we may be evil and sad.

*** Maurice Abramowicz observes: "According to this Scandinavian, Jesus always has the easy role: his streak of bad luck, thanks to the science of typographers, enjoys polyglot renown; his thirty-three-year residence among human beings was, on the whole, nothing more than a vacation." In the third appendix to Christelige Dogmatik (Christian Dogmatics), Erfjord refutes this passage. He notes that the crucifixion of God has not ceased because what happened once in time is repeated without respite in eternity. Judas, now, continues to charge silver coins in the temple; he continues to make a slipknot in the rope upon the field of blood.  (To justify this claim, Erfjord invokes the final chapter of the first volume of Jaromir Hladík's Vindication of Eternity.) 

Saturday
Apr162016

Borges, "Adam Cast Forth"

A poem (original title in English) by this Argentine.  You can read the original here.

Was there a garden or was it a dream?
Myself I asked, in fading light so slow.
And if the past, it comforts me to know,
Now Adam's own and sad, were but sleep's reams,

No realer than a magical, mad hoax
Of God?  All has been rendered imprecise
In memory, that clearest Paradise,
Exist it must, and will endure in hopes.

But not for me.  The stubborn dirt we shift
Has exiled me, red internecine spray
Of Cains and Abels and descendants' dread.
But to have loved remains our greatest gift.

To have been happy and to have touched
The living Garden, if but for one day.

Thursday
Apr072016

Borges, "Poema de los dones"

A work ("Poem of the gifts") by this Argentine writer.  You can read the original here.

May none in tears or with reproach then slight         
God's statement of His mastery, 
Who, with majestic irony,                    
Gave me at once both these books and the night.      

Of these books, now a city, lightless eyes         
He made the owners; eyes, it seems,      
Which in the libraries of dreams                     
Could only read some foolish tracts that tie         

The sun-ups to their zeal.  In vain the day        
Upon them foists its endless tomes;          
As toilsome as those ancient rolls        
That once in Alexandria decayed.                      

From hunger and from thirst (says a Greek tale) 
Near fonts and gardens dies a king; 
Such confines I roam, tiring          
Of this blind library, deep, blind, and pale.              

Encyclopedias, atlases, the East,             
The West, centuries, dynasties,            
Cosmos, symbols, cosmogonies             
Are fêted by these walls, if uselessly.              

Slow in my shade, this hollow darkness free 
With doubting cane I will entice;          
I, who imagined Paradise                     
As being but a kind of library.                 

Some thing that certainly does not entail 
That broad word "chance" – it rules these things;      
Once, many blurry evenings        
Another lost to books and to our shade. 

As through slow galleries I go astray,         
One sacred horror likes this plan:   
That I'm this other, the dead man,      
Perhaps with the same steps on those same days. 

What matters then that word which forms my name,              
(Which of us two has this verse spun,
Of plural I and shadow one?)    
When our anathema is but the same?          

Groussac or Borges, I thus gaze upon   
Our world, unforming, fading fast    
To palest and uncertain ash,                            
Akin to sleep or mere oblivion.                 

Saturday
Feb272016

El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro

A short story ("The implausible impostor Tom Castro") by this Argentine, based on real events. You can read the original here.

I provide this name because until 1850, this was the name by which he was known in the streets and houses of Talcahuano, Santiago, Chile, and Valparaíso. And it would be fair for him to reassume this name when he returned to these lands even if such a return were mere fantasy, a Saturday pastime.* On the Wapping birth register, with an entry dated June 7, 1834, his name is Arthur Orton. We know that he was the son of a butcher; that his childhood endured the insipid misery commonly incident to the lower boroughs of London; and that he felt the call of the sea. This is hardly unheard of: fleeing to the sea comprises the traditional English rupture with parental authority, the initiation into the heroic. Geography recommends it, as do the Scriptures (Psalm 107): They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.  

Orton fled his deplorable, pink-tainted suburb in a boat on the sea and contemplated, with habitual disillusion, the Southern Cross; he deserted at the port of Valparaíso. He was a man of placid idiocy. Logically, he could (and should) have died of hunger; but his confused joviality, his permanent smile, and his infinite meekness earned him the favor of a certain family Castro, whose name he adopted. There are no traces of this South American episode; but his gratitude did not wane. It is presumed that in 1861 he reappeared in Australia, still with the name Tom Castro. In Sydney he met a certain Bogle, a negro servant. Without being handsome, Bogle was possessed of a relaxed and monumental aura, the work-of-engineering solidity typical of a negro male who has become older, heavier, and more authoritative. He had a second quality which some handbooks of ethnography have denied his race: notions of genius. We shall see evidence of this later. In short, he was a restrained and decent man, with his ancient African appetites very well adjusted for the use and abuse of Calvinism. Apart from the visits of God (which we will describe later), he was absolutely normal, without any other irregularity apart from a modest and long-standing fear that would delay his step as he entered an alleyway or side street, suspicious as he was of the East, the West, the South, and the North, and of the violent vehicle which would put an end to his days.                          

One evening at dusk in a closed-off street corner in Sydney, Orton saw him in the midst of negotiating his imaginary death. At length he offered him his arm and, in mutual astonishment, the two of them crossed the harmless street. Since this twilight moment now long gone, a protectorate was established: that of the insecure and monumental negro over the obese crackpot from Wapping. In September 1865, both of them read a desperate announcement in a local newspaper.          

The idealized dead man

In the last days of April 1854 (as Orton was provoking an effusion of Chilean hospitality as wide as its patios), the steamer Mermaid, proceeding from Rio de Janeiro en route to Liverpool, was shipwrecked in the waters of the Atlantic. Among those who perished was Roger Charles Tichborne, an English military officer raised in France, the eldest son of one of the most important Catholic families of England. It seems implausible, but the death of this Gallicized young man with the finest of Parisian accents – which awakened the incomparable rancor that can only be caused by French intelligentsia, French wit, and French pedantry – was a transcendental event in the destiny of Orton, who had never laid eyes on Tichborne. Roger's horrified mother, Lady Tichborne, refused to believe in his death and began to publish desperate announcements in the newspapers of widest circulation. One of these announcements fell into the soft, funerary hands of the negro Bogle, who conceived of a brilliant plan.    

The virtues of disparity

Tichborne was a svelte gentleman with an air of vexation about him; he had sharp features, an olive complexion, straight black hair, lively eyes, and was almost irritating in his verbal precision. Orton, on the other hand, was an incontinent boor with a vast belly, features of stunning indefiniteness, a complexion bordering on the freckly, brown curly hair, and sleepy eyes; he was also a vague, almost absent conversationalist. Bogle decided that Orton ought to embark on the first steamer to Europe and satisfy the hope of Lady Tichborne by declaring to be her son.  

The project was one of foolish ingeniousness. I will take a simple example: if an impostor in 1914 had pretended to pass for the Emperor of Germany, the first thing he would have fabricated would have been the waxed mustaches, the limp arm, the authoritarian brow, the downcast mood, the illustrious and highly-decorated breast, and the Prussian shako. Bogle was more subtle: he would have presented a glabrous Kaiser, oblivious to military attributes and honorable eagles, with his left arm in a state of unquestionable health. We do not require the metaphor; we know that a flabby, squishy Tichborne appeared, with the amiable grin of an imbecile, brown hair, and an incorrigible ignorance of the French language.  

Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the much-desired Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to obtain. He also knew that all similarities achieved would do nothing more than reveal certain inevitable differences. Therefore he renounced any likeness whatsoever. He intuited that the enormous ineptitude of the impostorship would be conceivable proof that it was not a matter of fraud, that the simplest aspects of certainty would never be discovered by such flagrant means. One should also not forget the all-powerful alliance with time: fourteen years in the Southern hemisphere in a life left to chance can surely change a man.  

And there was another basic reason: Lady Tichborne's repeated and foolish announcements demonstrated her plain conviction that Roger had not died; they also indicated her desire to identify him anew.    

The encounter 

The ever-obliging Tom Castro wrote to Lady Tichborne. To establish his identity he submitted the irrefutable proof of the two beauty marks on his left nipple and that episode from his childhood, so traumatizing yet at the same time so memorable, in which he was assaulted by a swarm of bees. The note was brief and, much in keeping with Tom Castro and Bogle, free of orthographic scruples. In the impressive solitude of a Paris hotel the lady read and re-read the letter with the happiest of tears; and a few days later, she came upon the memories which her son had evoked.     

On the 16th of January, 1867, Roger Charles Tichborne announced his presence at this hotel. He was preceded by his respectable servant, Ebenezer Bogle. The winter day was full of sun; the fatigued eyes of Lady Tichborne were veiled in tears. The negro opened the windows wide. The light created a mask: the mother recognized her prodigal son and embraced him. Now that she had him for real, she could dispense with the newspaper and the letters he used to send her from Brazil; those were merely the adored reflections which had nourished her solitude for fourteen gloomy years. She gave them back to him with pride: not a single one was missing.      

Bogle smiled with the utmost discretion: here was where Roger's placid ghost had been documented. 

Ad majorem Dei gloriam

This illustrious acknowledgement – which seemed to obey the tradition of classic tragedies – ought to have crowned this story, leaving three assured, or at least probable happinesses: that of the loyal mother, that of the apocryphal and indulgent son, and that of the accomplice as compensation for the providential apotheosis of his diligence. Destiny (the name we apply to the incessant and infinite operation of countless intermingled causes) did not settle matters as such. Lady Tichborne died in 1870 and her relatives took up a case against Arthur Orton for the usurpation of a civil estate. Bereft of tears and solitude, but not of greed, they never believed in the blubbery, almost illiterate prodigal son who reemerged in so untimely a fashion from Australia.

Orton counted on the support of his innumerable creditors who had determined that he was in fact Tichborne, so that he would be able to pay them. He likewise counted on the friendship of the family attorney, Edward Hopkins, and that of the antiques dealer Francis J. Baigent. This was, nevertheless, not enough: Bogle thought that in order to win the battle it was paramount that they gain the strong backing of popular opinion. He needed a top hat and a decent umbrella and went seeking inspiration in the decorous streets of London. It was twilight; Bogle wandered about until a moon the color of honey was duplicated in the rectangular water of the public fountains. God visited him. Bogle hailed a cab and had him drive to the apartment of Baigent, the antiques dealer. Baigent sent a long letter to The Times proclaiming that the supposed Tichborne was a shameless impostor. It was signed by Father Goudron of the Society of Jesus. Other, equally Papist denunciations ensued. The effect was immediate: the good people could not but guess that Sir Roger was the target of an abominable Jesuit plot.

The cab         

The trial lasted one hundred ninety days. About a hundred witnesses pledged on their faith that the accused was Tichborne, among them four companions-in-arms from the 6th regiment of the dragoons. His partisans did not stop repeating that he was not an impostor, and if he had been, he had made sure to be a copy of the childhood portraits of his model. Moreover, Lady Tichborne had recognized him and it was clear that a mother could not be mistaken. Everything was going well, or more or less well, until an old flame of Orton's appeared before the tribunal to testify. Bogle did not display a flicker of emotion at this treacherous manoeuvre on the part of the "relatives"; he took an umbrella, hailed a cab again, and went off to plead for a third illumination in the decorous streets of London. We will never know whether he found it: shortly before arriving at Primrose Hill, he was met by that terrible vehicle which had been pursuing him all those years. Bogle saw it coming, let out a scream, but did not manage to save himself. He was violently hurled against the stones; the nag's traffic-driven hooves cracked open his skull.         

The specter

Tom Castro was the ghost of Tichborne, if a poor ghost inhabited by the genius of Bogle. When they informed him that Bogle was dead, he was crushed. He continued to lie, but with little enthusiasm and ludicrous contradictions. It was easy to foresee the end.  

On February 27, 1874, Arthur Orton, alias Tom Castro, was sentenced to fourteen years of hard labor. He made himself well-liked in jail; such was his purpose. His exemplary behavior took four years off his sentence. When its hospitality – that of the prison – finally let him go, he passed through the hamlets and centers of the United Kingdom, giving small talks in which he declared his innocence or affirmed his guilt. His modesty and desire to please were so engrained that, on many evenings, he would begin by defending himself and conclude with a confession, ever at the whims of the public.  

He died on April 2, 1898.

-------------------------------------- 

* I employ this metaphor to remind the reader that these infamous biographies appeared in the Saturday supplement of the evening paper.

Monday
Sep282015

El muerto

The well-known Borges story ("The Dead Man").  You can read the original here.

That a man from the suburbs of Buenos Aires, a sad upstart with no virtue save an infatuation with courage, would break through the equestrian deserts of the Brazilian border and reach the head of a group of smugglers initially seemed impossible. To those who see it that way I would like to relate the destiny of a certain Benjamín Otálora, of whom perhaps no memory is lost in Balvanera and who died on his own terms, from a bullet, in the confines of the Rio Grande do Sul. The details of his adventure are not known to me; once they are revealed I will have to correct and expand these pages. For the time being this summary may prove useful.

By 1891 Benjamín Otálora was nineteen years old. He was a big lad with a small forehead, light-colored, sincere eyes, and typically Basque brawn; a felicitous knife fight revealed that he was a brave man; the death of his opponent did not bother him, nor did his immediate need to flee the Republic. The leader of the parish gave him a letter for a certain Azevedo Bandeira, of Uruguay. Otálora set out, the crossing torturous and oppressive; the next day he was wandering through the streets of Montevideo in unconfessed and perhaps unexplained sadness. He did not find Azevedo Bandeira; towards midnight in a warehouse in Paso del Molino, he was present for an altercation among some cattle ranchers. A blade flashed; Otálora was not sure who was in the right, but he was attracted by the pure scent of danger like others were drawn to cards or music. During the brawl, one of the laborers stabbed a man in a poncho and dark hat below the belt; this turned out to be Azevedo Bandeira (upon learning this, Otálora ripped up the letter, preferring to keep it all to himself). However robust he may have been, Azevedo Bandeira gave the unjustifiable impression of being deformed. In his face, always a bit round, were the faces of the Jew, the African, and the Indian; in his demeanor, that of the monkey and the tiger; the scar across his face was one more adornment, just like his swinish black whiskers.

Projection or illusion of drink, the altercation ended as quickly as it had begun. Otálora tippled with the ranchers and walked them first to a party and then a large house in the Old City, the sun now quite high. In the last courtyard, which was of earth, all the men set up their things to go to sleep. Darkly, Otálora compared this night to the previous night. Now he was already walking on solid ground with friends. If he had any regrets it was that he didn't miss Buenos Aires. He slept until prayers, when he was woken up by the rancher who attacked Bandeira drunk (Otálora remembered that this man had shared in the night of tumult and jubilation and that Bandeira had sat him to his right and obliged him to keep drinking). The man said that he had been sent by the boss to look for him. At a sort of desk which led out to the hallway (Otálora had never seen a hallway with side doors) Azevedo Bandeira was waiting for him, with a thin and disdainful woman with reddish hair. Bandeira sized him up, offered him a dish of sugar cane, repeated that he seemed to him to be an enthusiastic fellow, and then proposed going north with the rest of the troops. Otálora accepted; until the early morning they were on the road heading for Tacuarembó.

It was here that a different life began for Otálora, a life of wide, almost endless dawns and workdays that had the smell of horses. This was a new life for him, and at times atrocious, but it was in his blood. For as men of other nations venerate and have presentiments about the sea, so do we (as well as the man who weaves these symbols) yearn for the endless prairie that resonates below our hooves. Otálora had grown up in the neighborhoods of drivers and landlords; a year ago he became a gaucho. He learned how to ride, get the horses accustomed to living in herds, slaughter cows, master the lasso and the ranchers who lasso, resist sleep, storms, ice, and the sun, urge on the cattle with whistles and shouts. Only one time during this whole period of apprenticeship did he see Azevedo Bandeira, but he was always present, because to be a man of Bandeira was to be respected and feared. And because, before any man, the gauchos said that Bandeira would make him better. Someone thought that Bandeira was born on the other side of the Cuareim, in the Rio Grande do Sul. This, which should have lowered him, obscurely enriched him with populous forests, with swamps, with inextricable and almost infinite distances. Gradually Otálora came to see that Bandeira had many different businesses and that the lifeblood of his operations was smuggling. To be a rancher was to be a servant; Otálora suggested that he be made a smuggler. Two members of the company were going to cross the frontier one night and return with some batches of sugar cane; Otálora provoked one of them, injured him and took his place. He was moved by ambition and also by some dark loyalty. May the man (he thought) come to understand that I am worth more than all his easterners put together.

A year passed before Otálora returned to Montevideo. They passed along the shores then the city (which seemed to Otálora to be very large), and arrived at the boss's house. The men had their equipment in the last courtyard. Days passed and Otálora did not see Bandeira. They said, fearfully, that he was sick. A dark-skinned man would go up to his bedroom with a boiler and with mate. One evening, this task was entrusted to Otálora. He felt vaguely humiliated but satisfied at the same time.

The bedroom was stripped bare and dark. There was a balcony with a view of the west wind, a large table with a dazzling mountain of Talers, bullwhips, belts, firearms, and knives, and a distant mirror fogged up by moonlight. Bandeira was lying there face up, dreaming and complaining, and the sun's persistence ultimately betrayed his contours. As Otálora noticed the grey hair, the fatigue, the cracks of age, the vast white bed seemed to diminish and obscure him. It infuriated him that this old man was their leader; he began to think that one good smash would do him in. Still immersed in thought, he saw by the mirror that someone had entered the room: it was, he observed, the red-haired woman. She was half-dressed and barefoot and was looking at him with aloof interest. Bandeira sat up. While he was prattling on about the campaign and downing mate after mate, his fingers played with the woman's braids. Finally, he allowed Otálora to leave.

Days later came the order to head north. They arrived at an abandoned outpost which was like any other place on the endless prairie. No trees, not even a stream was there to relieve them, and first light and last struck them in equal force. Quarries belonged to the farm which was horned and indigent, the name of this poor establishment being The Sigh.

Otálora heard from among the laborers that Bandeira would not be making it to Montevideo. He asked why; someone explained to him that there was a foreign gaucho who wanted a little too much power. Otálora understood this as a joke, but it flattered him anyway that this joke might indeed be possible. He later ascertained that Bandeira had made an enemy of one of the political chiefs and that the latter had rescinded his support. This news pleased him.

Then long weapons arrived in boxes; they were followed by a tankard and washbowl of silver for the woman's chamber, baskets of woven damask, baskets of knives, morning, and a cheerless horseman with a sharply clipped beard and a poncho. His name was Ulpiano Suárez and he was the capanga or bodyguard of Azevedo Bandeira. He was a man of few words and a very Brazilian manner. Otálora did not know whether to impute his reserve to hostility, disdain, or mere barbarism; what he did know was that according to the plan he was hatching, he would have to gain his friendship.

Then there entered into the destiny of Benjamín Otálora a brownish-red black-tailed horse from the Rio Grande do Sul that Azevedo Bandeira rode, and which shined from its plated tack with tiger skin trim. This unbridled steed was a symbol of the boss's authority, and for that reason the boy coveted it. He also came to desire, perhaps with some resentment, the woman with the dazzling hair. The woman, the tack, and the brownish-red steed were all attributes of the man he sought to destroy.

And here is where the story becomes more complicated and profound. Azevedo Bandeira was skilled in the art of progressive intimidation, in the Satanic maneuver of humiliating his interlocutor gradually, combining truth and jokes. Otálora decided to apply this ambiguous method to the laborious task which he gave himself. He resolved to supplant, slowly, Azevedo Bandeira. He managed, during workdays of common danger, to gain Juárez's friendship. He confided to him his plan and Suárez pledged his support. Many things would happen thereafter of which I only know a few. Otálora did not obey Bandeira; in fact, he tried to forget, correct, and reverse his orders. The universe seemed to be conspiring with him and accelerating the events. One day around noon in the fields of Tacuarembó there was a gunfight with some locals from the Rio Grande do Sul. Otálora usurped the place of Bandeira and took command of the easterners. A bullet hit him in the shoulder, but that afternoon Otálora returned to The Sigh on the chief's brownish-red horse, and that afternoon a few drops of blood stained the tiger skin, and that night he slept with the woman with the refulgent hair. Other versions changed the order of these facts and denied that they all took place in the course of a single day.

Bandeira, however, was still nominally the chief. He gave orders that were not carried out; Benjamín Otálora did not touch him out of a mix of routine and pity.

The story's final scene corresponded to the agitation on the last night of 1894. That night, the men of The Sigh ate some recently slaughtered pork and drank some troublesome liquor; someone strummed a milonga with great effort. At the head of the table and drunk, Otálora raised exultation after exultation, cheer after cheer, and this vertiginous tower was the symbol of his irresistible destiny. Bandeira, taciturn among those shouting, let the night flow along in riot. When the clock struck twelve he got up like someone who remembered an obligation. He got up and knocked softly on the woman's door. She opened immediately as if expecting his visit. She walked out half-dressed and barefoot. With a voice both feminine and groveling, the chief commanded her:

"If you and the fellow from Buenos Aires love each other so much, it's about time you gave him a kiss in front of everyone."

And here came a rather brutal twist. The woman wanted no part of this plan, but two men took her by the arm and threw her atop of Otálora. Devastated and in tears, she kissed his face and chest. Ulpiano Suárez had already taken out his revolver. Before dying, Otálora understood that they had betrayed him from the very beginning, that he had been condemned to death, that they had allowed him love, power, and triumph, because they had already taken him for dead, because for Bandeira he was already dead.

Suárez, almost with disdain, opened fire.

Friday
Aug142015

La escritura del dios

A short story ("The God's Inscription") by this Argentine.  You can read the original here.

The prison was deep and made of stone; its form, that of an almost perfect hemisphere, as well as the floor (likewise of stone) measure somewhat less than a full circle, made in such a way as to aggravate the feelings of oppression and vastness. A median wall cuts through it; this wall, although extremely high, does not touch the farthest part of the vault. On one side am I, Tzinacán, magus of the pyramid of Qaholom which Pedro de Alvarado set to flame; on the other is a jaguar, measuring with even and secret steps the dimensions and date of capture. Level with the floor, a long barred window cuts through the central wall. At the hour without shadow (midday) a trap opens above and a jailer whom the years have erased operates an iron pulley and lowers down to us, on the tip of the rope, jugs with water and pieces of meat. Light enters the vault, and at this moment I can see the jaguar.

I lost track of the number of years I lay in the darkness; I, who once was young and able to walk through this prison, do nothing but maintain, in my death pose, the end that the gods have planned for me. With the deep flint knife I opened the chests of the victims and now would not be capable of raising myself from the dust without magic.

On the evening of the burning of the Pyramid, the men who descended from towering steeds punished me with burning metals so that I would tell them the location of the hidden treasure. Before my very eyes they knocked over the idol of my god, but my god did not abandon me and I remained silent between each set of torments. I was lacerated, beaten, deformed, and then I awoke in this jail which I shall not leave for the rest of my mortal life.

Urged on by the fatality of doing something, of populating the hours in some fashion, I sought to recall in these shadows everything I had ever known. Entire nights were wasted in remembering the order and number of certain stone serpents or the shape of a medicinal tree. In this way I conquered the years; in this way I entered into the possession of that which was mine. Before catching sight of the ocean, the passenger senses an agitation in his blood; and one night I felt that a precise memory was approaching. Hours later I began to perceive the memory: it was one of the traditions of my god. Foreseeing that at the end of all ages there would occur countless misfortunes and ruin, he wrote on that first day of Creation a magic sentence for conjuring up evil. He wrote it in such a way that it befell the most distant of generations and was untouched by chance. No one knows how much he wrote nor what characters he used, but we have evidence that the sentence persists in secret and one chosen person will read it. As always, I thought that we were already at the end of all ages and that my destiny as last priest of my god would give me access to the privilege of intuiting this writing. The fact that I was surrounded by a jail did not deprive me of such a hope; perhaps I had seen the inscription of Qaholom thousands of times and simply failed to divine its meaning.

This thought gave me strength which later turned into a type of vertigo. In the ambit of the soil there were old forms, incorruptible and eternal forms; any of them could have been the symbol so desired. A mountain could have been the word of god, or a river or the empire or the configuration of the stars. But in the course of the centuries the mountains level out, and the path of a river tends to deviate; empires are bound to encounter mutations and havoc and the configuration and shape of the stars vary. There is movement in the firmament. The mountain and the star are individuals and individuals expire. I searched for something more tenacious, more invulnerable. I thought of the generations of grains, of pastures, of birds, of men. Perhaps this magic was written on my face, perhaps it was I who was the completion of my search. It was when I was immersed in such zeal that I remembered that the jaguar was one of the attributes of my god.

And so did piety fill my soul. I imagined the first morning of time; I imagined my god confiding the message in the live skin of jaguars who would copulate and breed their species endlessly in caves, in reed-beds, on islands, so that the last men would receive that message. I imagined a web of tigers, a hot labyrinth of tigers terrorizing the fields and flocks, all in order to conserve a sketch. There was a jaguar in the other cell; in his vicinity I espied a confirmation of my conjecture and a secret favor.

Long years did I devote to learning the order and configuration of its spots. Every blind day conceded a moment of light, and so my mind became able to discern the black forms which smeared its gilded fur. Some were circular dots; others were transverse stripes on the inner part of its legs; others were rings repeating themselves. Perhaps they were all the same sound or the same word. Many were trimmed in red.

I will not mention the fatigues of my labor. More than once I screamed at the vault that it was impossible to decipher any text. Gradually the concrete enigma with which I had tasked myself began to bother me less than the generic enigma of a sentence written by a god. What type of sentence, I asked myself, would constitute an absolute mind? I mused that even in the human languages there was no proposition that did not imply the entire universe; saying tiger meant the tigers that bred him, the deer and turtles that he devoured, the field on which the deer grazed, the land which was the mother of this field, the sky which shone upon this land. I mused that in the language of a god every word would announce this infinite concatenation of facts, and not in an implicit but rather an explicit way, and not progressively but immediately. In time, the notion of a divine sentence seemed puerile or blasphemous. A god, I thought, only needs to say one word and in this word resides the plenitude. No voice articulated by him could be inferior to the universe or less than the sum of all ages. Shadows and simulacra of this voice which equates to a language and how much one can understand a language are the ambitions and poor human voices, everything, world, universe.

One day or one night – what difference was there then between my days and nights? – I dreamt that the floor of my prison had a grain of sand. Indifferent, I went back to sleep; then I dreamt that I had woken up and that there were now two grains of sand. I went back to sleep; and I dreamt that the grains of sand had become three. They multiplied in this way until the prison was brimming and I was dying beneath this hemisphere of sand. I understood that I was dreaming; with supreme effort I woke myself up. Waking up was useless; the swarm of sand was suffocating me. Someone said: "You have not opened your eyes to wakefulness, but to your previous dream. This dream is within you, and will go on in infinity, which is the number of the grains of sand. The path you will have to retrace is interminable and you will die before you really wake."

I felt lost. Sand was penetrating my mouth, and yet I cried: "Not a single dreamed grain can kill me nor are there dreams within dreams." A flash woke me. In the upper darkness a circle of light threatened to break. I saw the face and hands of my jailer, the pulley, the meat and the jugs.

A man gradually becomes commingled with the signature of his destiny; over time a man becomes his circumstances. More than a decipherer or avenger, more than a priest of the god, I was a prisoner. I returned from the tireless labyrinth of dreams to the hard prison as if I were returning home. I gave thanks for the humidity, its tiger, the tiny hole of light; I gave thanks for my old pain-ridden body; I gave thanks for the darkness and the stone.

Then something occurred which I cannot forget nor communicate. What occurred was the union with the divinity, with the universe (I don't know whether these words contain any difference). The ecstasy did not repeat its symbols; there was someone who saw God in a flash; there was someone who saw Him in a sword or the spirals of a rose. I saw the highest Wheel, which was not before my eyes nor behind them, not at their sides, but everywhere all at once. This Wheel was made of water but also of fire, and was (although its edge was visible) infinite. Interwoven, it formed all things that could be, are and were, and I was one of the strands of this long thread, and Pedro de Alvarado who had tormented me was another. Here were the causes and effects and it was enough for me to see this Wheel to understand everything, everything without end. O serendipity of understanding, so much greater than that of imagining or sensing! I saw the universe and the intimate designs of the universe. I saw the origins which the Popol Vuh narrates. I saw the mountains which surged from the water, I saw the first tree men, I saw the earthenware jars that turned against men, I saw the dogs that destroyed their faces. I saw the god without a face who sat behind all the other gods. I saw infinite processes which formed one single happiness, and understanding all of this, I also came to understand the writing of the tiger.

It was a formula of fourteen unadorned words (at least they seemed unadorned) and I would only need to say them aloud to become omnipotent. I would only need to say them for this stone prison to be obliterated, for day to enter into my night, for me to be young, for me to be immortal, for the tiger to destroy Alvarado, for the sacred knife to plunge into Spanish chests, for the pyramid and empire to be reconstructed. Forty syllables, fourteen words and I, Tzinacán, would rule the lands that Moctezuma ruled. But I know that I will never utter these words because I no longer remember Tzinacán.

May the mystery that is written in the tigers perish with me. He who has seen through the universe, he who has seen through the ardent designs of the universe cannot think of a man, of his trivial joys and misfortunes, even if he is that same man. This man has been this man and now it no longer matters. What does he care about any other's luck and happiness, what does he care about any other's nation if he, now, is no one? For that reason I do not utter the formula, for that reason I allow my days to be forgotten, laid to rest in the darkness.

Monday
Jun292015

Antiguas literaturas germánicas

Given the ingenuity and thoroughness of Northern European philologists, it seems odd that anyone might consider a Spanish study of ancient Germanic texts to be a relevant groundswell of information – but then again not every book is authored by this Argentine. The imagination and style necessary for great fiction comprise the acme of literary artistic talent. So it is a great pleasure when such a mind does us the favor of expressing his or her views on the content and history of texts often reserved for more obscure interpreters. If you are familiar with Borges’s oeuvre, you are aware that his learning is not only breathtaking, it is systematic, a fortress built on a million precisely positioned bricks that render the whole formidable, impenetrable and, with the exception of this poet, unparalleled in the history of modern letters. To create a story, or poem, or essay, one of these bricks is taken and examined as closely as one can without letting it slip into the woeful chasm of triviality. This one brick then reminds its builder of other bricks, some of which may sit next to the one he is examining, others of which might be located on the farthest end of his battlements. But only one base is required to build his structures, one beach-found pebble, one flickering amidst the “heaventree of stars” (a metaphor proposed in this novel) to re-imagine an entire realm of gods, of giants, of dwarfs, and their interaction with us mere humans. And the brick for this book is a runic drawing of something that terrified generations of coastal dwellers, a Viking longship.

We begin with ancient Britain and conclude with ancient Germany, but in between we find the richest of all long-gone Germanic traditions: the Scandinavian. Students of that beautiful incantation, Old Norse, will not only be quick to point out that modern Icelandic is this tongue’s direct and close descendant, they will also invoke the primacy of this tradition as the most remarkable in Europe at the time. Now, as much as I am captivated by Norse mythology and most things Nordic, we must be fair in stating that Greek and Latin mythology, reinforced by the Christian credos that were spreading at the time of the composition of some of these epics, were primary sources for their structure, and to a lesser degree, their content. This notwithstanding, Borges reiterates one facet of this literary development that makes it unique:

In Iceland, the new Christian faith was not hostile to the old. In contrast to what occurred in Norway, Sweden, Germany, England, and Denmark, conversions here were bloodless. Those Norwegians who had settled in Iceland displayed the religious indifference of aristocrats; their descendants looked back upon the pagan faith with nostalgia, just like other old things lost over time. What happened to Germanic mythology was exactly what had happened earlier to the myths of the Greeks: no one believed in them anymore, but a firm knowledge of their stories was indispensable for learned persons.

There are other reasons for the survival of Norse traditions that in some countries have now been transformed into modern paganism, and no reason is more significant than the gods’ mortality. You will have heard about Ragnarök (Götterdämmerung in the Wagnerian cycle), which is traditionally rendered as “twilight of the Gods,” a German mistranslation akin to what Herder did with ellerkonge. Scholars of Scandinavian languages will tell you, however, that it really means the “fate of those who reign,” which could be gods, or lords, or run-of-the-Althing despots. It is this eschatological feature that separates the Norse tradition from the Greek and Latin, and makes it more palatable to the martyrdom of Christianity in which a God, only one in this case, knows his end in his beginning.

That Antiguas literaturas germánicas is primarily designed as a survey for Spanish speakers of a hitherto little-researched field for Latin Americans is a correct supposition. But Borges could not possibly have written something simply for pragmatic purposes.  We must consider, therefore, the investigation’s poetic value, and most relevant to his works are the kennings, the famed Scandinavian metaphors with which Borges is more than a little enamored, and which he lists with relish in the middle of his work. Among many others, he includes: “the battle ice,” “the wrath stick,” “the helmets’ fire,” “the helmets’ rodent,” “the blood branch,” “the wolf of wounds” (for “sword”); “the whale roof,” “the swan land,” “the waves’ path,” “the Viking field,” “the gulls’ meadow,” “the whale path,” “the islands’ chain” (for “sea”); and “the ravens’ delight,” “the raven beak’s reddener,” “the eagle gladdener,” “the helmet tree,” “the sword tree,” and “the swords’ dyer” (for “warrior”). Here was an endless font of poetry for a bilingual English-Spanish speaker who many feel wrote with a surfeit of adjectives placed before nouns.  Borges, his vision fading, slowly became so taken by these sagas that he began to believe they had all actually happened. He even confessed in an interview that, while he might not be a Christian in the strict sense of the word, he “believed in the Norse gods,” a response that did not surprise the interviewer and should not surprise us. The advent of Christianity did change something in the tone of these sagas. As Borges laments:

The saga, like all novelistic works, is nourished on the richness and complexity of its characters. The new faith resulted in banning this disinterested contemplation and shoved it out in favor of a dualistic world of virtues and vices, of punishments for some and rewards for others …. From these awful syntactical equivalences …. it should be noted that the movement from a ‘storm of arrows’ [for ‘battle’] to a ‘firebrand of a storm of arrows’ comprises the degeneration of the poetry of Iceland.

Thus the violent and mystic images of the Vikings, above all for kinship and military terms, were replaced by the black-and-white simplicity of good versus evil. But much more than that, a whole world was submerged beneath frozen waters for the good of mankind, which had the remarkable foresight not to forget about it. Perhaps, for this reason, you will be stunned at the coherence of such an endeavor, of the revivification of the invaders, their hymns and dirges, their macabre prophecies and sayings. And in the end, through several centuries of asides and esoteric learning, we picture quite clearly Bede, Snorri Sturluson, and Otfried of Weissenburg under one bright Northern sky. That is, a “cloud house and the sister of the moon.”
Monday
Jun012015

Borges, "Adrogué"

A poem by this Argentine and, research tells me, "a town at the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires which was a summer refuge for the Borges family."  You can read the original here.

Nobody in most baffling night
May see me lost among the swell
Of flowered parks. where garments fell
In folds by love's nostalgic light.

Past noonday sloth, that secret thrush
Refining still the selfsame song;
The fountains purl by arbor's throng,
And statues and odd ruins brush.

In hollow shade a coach apace
Marks, I know well, the confines' shake;
This dust and jasmine world we break,
Herrera and Verlaine's sweet place.

The eucalyptus shade emits
A healing and now ancient scent,
That past its time and language sits
On country farms of memories spent.

Steps search and find the threshold's feet
Its darksome limit the roof suggests;
On chessboard patio facing west
Some water drips in broken beat.

Beyond the doors, they sleep and think
Those who still dream and work at night;
Those lords of visionary sight
Of yesteryear and deadest things.

I know each thing in this old house:
The crystal faces of the clocks,
Revealed in turn upon grey rocks
In faded mirrors' endless joust.

A lion's head whose teeth hold firm 
A ring, then multicolored panes:
A child's first sense of worlds that churn
In red and green, they never wane.

Beyond pure chance and death's black shroud
They last, alone in detailed shape. 
Yet all occurs by fate's mad cape: 
Dimension four, mnemonic cloud.

They last, alone, and so exist 
The gardens, patios, and the past;
In that preserve of rounded cast,
That dawn and dusk will both have kissed.

How could I then have lost the thread,
Beloved, humble things once known?
As distant as the roses shown
In Paradise to Adam's breath?

An elegy of olden days 
Still haunts me now, that house I see!
Yet time remains a mystery
For me, who is time, blood, and pain.