¡Feliz cumpleaños Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo!
24 August 2011
Today is the birthday of Jorge Luis Borges, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, so I wish a very happy birthday to the shade of Borges. The kind of writing that Borges did is a rare treat. He was not only a good writer, an entertaining stylist, and wrote fun stories, but his stories were based on intriguing ideas. When you read a Borges story you are likely to encounter an idea that you would never have thought of on your own, but once you have the idea in mind, it insinuates itself into your thoughts.
This, at least, is what I experienced when I first read Borges, at the urging of a friend who would not let up until I read a Borges story. I am glad in retrospect for his persistence. The first Borges story I read was Funes, The Memorious. This is not among Borges’ better-known stories, and in fact I read a review (I think it was in Time magazine some years ago, so consider the source) of Borges’ collected works in which the author of the review singled out Funes as among the least interesting of Borges’ stories. But it was the first one I read, and therefore it has had an ongoing influence on my thought.
I found it curious that Borges specifically assigned Ireneo Funes an infallible perception of time prior to his acquisition (Is that what we should call it?) of an infallible memory. There is, of course, a relation between time and memory, but, in a sense, an inverse relation. I would think (making of it a thought experiment) that if one had an infallible memory, one would lose track of time, as so much would be noticed that the moments otherwise flying by would be laden with perceptions and associations, so much so that time would drag. Since no one of whom I know has actually had a perfect and infallible memory, this must remain speculation. I have often come back in my thoughts to this Borgesian connection between time and memory (which, I suppose, is also a Proustian connection), and I think that there is much more to be said about this.
At the same time that I read the Funes story, I was reading a book about Homer. The author’s theory in this book was that Homer, traditionally blind (as was Borges), was among the last practitioners of a great tradition of recitation from memory of epic poetry. The author suggested that Homer, in a last, great gesture, expended himself in an especially detailed recitation of the traditional epic that was then taken down for posterity by an amanuensis. Therefore, Homer was blind and illiterate, but through dictation this tradition was preserved just at a time at which oral culture was disappearing due to the advent of literary culture, which would have eventually doomed the tradition that Homer represented.
In Book II of the Iliad, immediately before beginning the recitation of the assembled forces (often called the “catalogue of ships”) — a particularly difficult feat of memory that entails many proper names and fewer of the stock phrases (like “the wine-dark sea”) that made oral epic poetry possible — Homer invokes the Muses for assistance, as he does at the beginning of the epic. Only the immortals, it would seem, have the capacity for such feats of memory.
Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (and serial lecturer for The Teaching Company) says that contemporary listeners don’t know how to understand or appreciate polyphonic music, that they have lost the talent through disuse, and that if one is going to comprehend Palestrina or Bach today, one must school oneself in hearing the intertwining melodic lines. Similarly, literary man has lost the talent of oral epic poetry after the tradition of Homer. But Funes has exceeded Homer. Funes has gone even farther than the Lockean thought experiment in substituting proper names for general concepts, farther than this unworkable conception of thought, which would make language impossible.
Funes, in a sense, then, is like a return to a lost, pre-literary, even pre-conceptual Eden, in which men actually noticed the things they saw because they did not reduce them to words or concepts. (Perhaps Ireneo Funes knew that to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.) By means of language and then literature, we have been expelled by an angel with a flaming sword from this pre-predicative world, and now must earn our experience by the sweat of our brow. What Adam had for the taking, we struggle to grasp. The reduction of numbers to proper names is a return to a pre-conceptual mathematics, to a tallying of details, an Adamic mathematics. Whether the Fall from Adamic innocence and virtue to explicit and formal knowledge is indeed a Fall, or if it is instead a condition of progress, is in a sense the same question as whether Funes has fallen from our present state of sophistication, or whether he was restored to the mind’s Eden. The Borges story is silent on this point.
Unlike the Funes story, almost everyone is familiar with the Borges story about the universal library (La biblioteca de Babel), as entertaining as it is intriguing. Having heard the idea, one can scarcely stop oneself from occasionally musing on the very thought of it. Quine in his Quiddities calls the universal library a “melancholy fantasy” and goes on in the finest tradition of reductive analytical philosophy to prove that the idea amounts to nothing more than the fact that information can be encoded, and that all we have written down could ultimately be expressed by appropriate concatenations of the dot and dash of Morse code.
Quine is right, of course, but his “explanation” does not dissipate the mystique of the library described by Borges, and anyone who loves libraries will find his mind wandering back to those labyrinthine corridors even after having read Quine. And so it was, musing on this melancholy fantasy, that I hit upon a paradoxical notion. While the universal library is impossibly large, it is nevertheless finite. In a finite library it would seem that there could not be any books of infinite length. However, any long book can be broken into multiple volumes. What is to prevent a book from having an infinitude of continuing volumes, and thus being a book of infinite length?
At some point, the volumes would have to repeat themselves, since possible finite combinations of symbols would be exhausted. But how would the volumes be identified? Each volume would end, “continued in volume such-and-such,” but eventually the number of the volume would be inexpressible within the finite dimensions of the books in the universal library. At this point, alternative conventions for naming numbers could be established, and this puts us in mind of the above-mentioned Funes, the Memorious. The project of Ireneo Funes, a “vernacular superman” (as Borges calls him) with a perfect memory, was to construct a number system with proper names for all numbers, which the narrator of the tale identifies as the opposite of a system of numeration.
On an exhaustive formulation, the vast majority of books in the universal library would consist of gibberish. What would make the library more interesting would be a librarian charged with the task of eliminating volumes of gibberish. However, this task would become controversial. The librarian could safely throw away volumes in which not a single coherent word appears, but one would hesitate to formulate more robust directives, which would force the removal of works by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
Beyond the mere elimination of volumes containing too many (however many that may be) non-words, the task of eliminating volumes in which the arrangement of the words was incoherent would be even more controversial. We could safely exclude volumes containing “too many” failures of syntax (Again, how many are “too many” failures?), but we couldn’t go as far in this regard as we could in eliminating nonsense words, as we would risk excluding point of consciousness narratives. The work of the librarian would reach its apogee of controversy in any attempt to exclude works of semantic or pragmatic incoherence, for any claim in this arena would generate counterclaims ad infinitum. And so, although the universal library is finite in regard to the number of volumes it retains, we can safely predict that it would be infinite in regard to the correspondence it would generate.
¡Feliz cumpleaños Borges!
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