The things which no one sees, except for Berkeley’s God

Things (Cosas) from Borges’ The Gold of the Tigers (El Oro de los tigros) followed by notes from the critical edition.

Things
The fallen volume; hidden by the others
from sight in the recesses of the bookshelves,
and which the days and nights muffle over
with slow and noiseless dust. Also, the anchor
of Sidon, which the seas surrounding England
press down into its blind and soft abyss.
The mirror which shows nobody’s reflection
after the house has long been left alone.
Fingernail filings which we leave behind
across the long expanse of time and space.
The indecipherable dust, once Shakespeare.
The changing figurations of a cloud.
The momentary but symmetric rose
which once, by chance, took substance in the shrouded
mirrors of a boy’s kaleidoscope.
The oars of Argus, the original ship.
The sandy footprints which the fatal wave
as though asleep erases from the beach.
The colours of a Turner when the lights
are turned out in the narrow gallery
and not a footstep sounds in the deep night.
The other side of the dreary map of the world.
The tenuous spiderweb in the pyramid.
The sightless stone and the inquiring hand.
The dream I had in the approaching dawn
and later lost in the clearing of the day.
The ending and beginning oí the epic
of Finsburh, today a few sparse verses
of iron, unwasted by the centuries.
The mirrored letter on the blotting paper.
The turtle in the bottom of the cistern.
And that which cannot be. The other horn
of the unicorn. The Being, Three in One.
The triangular disk. The imperceptible moment
in which the Eleatic arrow,
motionless in the air, reaches the mark.
The violet pressed between the leaves of Becquer.
The pendulum which time has stayed in place.
The weapon Odin buried in the tree.
The volume with its pages still unslit.
The echo of the hoofbeats at the charge
of Junin, which in some enduring mode
never has ceased, is part of the webbed scheme.
The shadow of Sarmiento on the sidewalks.
The voice heard by the shepherd on the mountain.
The skeleton bleaching white in the desert.
The bullet which shot dead Francisco Borges.
The other side of the tapestry. The things
which no one sees, except for Berkeley’s God


Cosas
El volumen caído que los otros
ocultan en la hondura del estante
y que los días y las noches cubren
de lento polvo silencioso. El ancla
de sidón que los mares de Inglaterra
oprimen en su abismo ciego y blando.
El espejo que no repite a nadie
cuando la casa se ha quedado sola.
Las limaduras de uña que dejamos
a lo largo del tiempo y del espacio.
El polvo indescifrable que fue Shakespeare.
Las modificaciones de la nube.
La simétrica rosa momentánea
que el azar dio una vez a los ocultos
cristales del pueril calidoscopio.
Los remos de Argos, la primera nave.
Las pisadas de arena que la ola
soñolienta y fatal borra en la playa.
Los colores de Turner cuando apagan
las luces en la recta galería
y no resuena un paso en la alta noche.
El revés del prolijo mapamundi.
La tenue telaraña en la pirámide.
La piedra ciega y la curiosa mano.
El sueño que he tenido antes del alba
y que olvidé cuando clareaba el día.
El principio y el fin de la epopeya
de Finsburh, hoy unos contados versos
de hierro, no gastado por los siglos.
La letra inversa en el papel secante.
La tortuga en el fondo del aljibe
Lo que no puede ser. El otro cuerno
del unicornio. El Ser que es Tres y es Uno.
El disco triangular. El inasible
instante en que la flecha del eleata,
inmóvil en el aire, da en el blanco.
La flor entre las páginas de Becquer.
El péndulo que el tiempo ha detenido.
El acero que Odín clavó en el árbol.
El texto de las no cortadas hojas.
El eco de los cascos de la carga
de Junín, que de algún eterno modo
no ha cesado y es parte de la trama.
La sombra de Sarmiento en las aceras.
La voz que oyó el pastor en lá montaña.
La osamenta blanqueando en el desierto.
La bala que mató a Francisco Borges.
El otro lado del tapiz. Las cosas
que nadie mira, salvo el Dios de Berkeley.

And below are the (untranslated) notes from the Obras Completas Edicion Critica. These turn out generally less helpful than you’d want but feel more valuable here in helping pinpoint the direction of certain references.

To arrange a library is to practice, in a quiet and modest way, the art of criticism

From Borges’ In Praise of Darkness (Elogio de la sombra), in the Norman Thomas di Giovanni translation.

JUNE 1968
On a golden evening,
or in a quietness whose symbol
might be a golden evening,
a man sets up his books
on the waiting shelves,
feeling the parchment and leather and cloth
and the satisfaction given by
the anticipation of a habit
and the establishment of order.
Stevenson and that other Scotsman, Andrew Lang,
will here pick up again, in a magic way,
the leisurely conversation broken off
by oceans and by death,
and Alfonso Reyes surely will be pleased
to share space close to Virgil.
(To arrange a library is to practice,
in a quiet and modest way,
the art of criticism.)
The man, who is blind,
knows that he can no longer read
the handsome volumes he handles
and that they will not help him write
the book which in the end might justify him,
but on this evening that perhaps is golden
he smiles at his strange fate
and feels that special happiness
which comes from things we know and love.


JUNIO, 1968
En la tarde de oro
o en una serenidad cuyo símbolo
podría ser la tarde de oro,
el hombre dispone los libros
en los anaqueles que aguardan
y siente el pergamino, el cuero, la tela
y el agrado que dan
la previsión de un hábito
y el establecimiento de un orden.
Stevenson y el otro escocés, Andrew Lang,
reanudarán aquí, de manera mágica,
la lenta discusión que interrumpieron
los mares y la muerte
y a Reyes no le desagradará ciertamente
la cercanía de Virgilio.
(Ordenar bibliotecas es ejercer,
de un modo silencioso y modesto,
el arte de la crítica.)
El hombre, que está ciego,
sabe que ya no podrá descifrar
los hermosos volúmenes que maneja
y que no le ayudarán a escribir
el libro que lo justificará ante los otros,
pero en la tarde que es acaso de oro
sonríe ante el curioso destino
y siente esa felicidad peculiar
de las viejas cosas queridas

Perhaps in death when the dust is dust, we will be forever this undecipherable root

Alguien / Someone from Borges’ El Otro, El Mismo / The Self and the Other, in the W.S. Merwin translation. At bottom is the commentary from Obras Completas Edicion Critica (v.2 pg 562) quoting Guillermo Sucre’s Borges, el poeta explanation of the poem’s ‘antigua inocencia‘ (pg. 130 there, my translation).

SOMEONE
A man worn down by time,
a man who does not even expect death
(the proofs of death are statistics
and everyone runs the risk
of being the first immortal),
a man who has learned to express thanks
for the days’ modest alms:
sleep, routine, the taste of water,
an unsuspected etymology,
a Latin or Saxon verse,
the memory of a woman who left him
thirty years ago now
whom he can call to mind without bitterness,
a man who is aware that the present
is both future and oblivion,
a man who has betrayed
and has been betrayed,
may feel suddenly, when crossing the street,
a mysterious happiness
not coming from the side of hope
but from an ancient innocence,
from his own root or from some diffused god.

He knows better than to look at it closely,
for there are reasons more terrible than tigers
which will prove to him
that wretchedness is his duty,
but he accepts humbly
this felicity, this glimmer.

Perhaps in death when the dust
is dust, we will be forever
this undecipherable root,
from which will grow forever,
serene or horrible,
our solitary heaven or hell.


ALGUIEN
Un hombre trabajado por el tiempo,
un hombre que ni siquiera espera la muerte
(las pruebas de la muerte son estadísticas
y nadie hay que no corra el albur
de ser el primer inmortal),
un hombre que ha aprendido a agradecer
las modestas limosnas de los días:
el sueño, la rutina, el sabor del agua,
una no sospechada etimología,
un verso latino o sajón,
la memoria de una mujer que lo ha abandonado
hace ya tantos años
que hoy puede recordarla sin amargura,
un hombre que no ignora que el presente
ya es el porvenir y el olvido,
un hombre que ha sido desleal
y con el que fueron desleales,
puede sentir de pronto, al cruzar la calle,
una misteriosa felicidad
que no viene del lado de la esperanza
sino de una antigua inocencia,
de su propia raíz o de un dios disperso.

Sabe que no debe mirarla de cerca,
porque hay razones más terribles que tigres
que le demostrarán su obligación
de ser un desdichado,
pero humildemente recibe
esa felicidad, esa ráfaga.

Quizá en la muerte para siempre seremos,
cuando el polvo sea polvo,
esa indescifrable raíz,
de la cual para siempre crecerá,
ecuánime o atroz,
nuestro solitario cielo o infierno.

The ancient innocence is “the return, not only to his past but to his own origin, to that dimension where evocation is identified with invention, where memory is nourished on oblivion; still more: where oblivion is the non-being that is a form of being. For this reason, at the end of the poem, Borges intuits that this innocence (the “undecipherable root”) will not arise except from death; death, not as negation, but as true revelation of the identity of time

Art is that Ithaca of green eternity, not of marvels

From Borges’ El Hacedor / The Maker. The English translation is W.S. Merwin’s from, most recently, the Viking Selected Poems Borges collection. Merwin truly does pop up in the widest range of places.

Ars Poetica
To look at the river made of time and water
and to remember that time is another river,
to know that we lose ourselves like the river
and that faces pass by like the water.

To feel that wakefulness is another sleep
that dreams of not dreaming and that
the death that our flesh fears is that
death that comes every night,
which is called sleep.

To see in the day or the year a symbol
of the days of man and his years;
to turn the insult of the years
into a music, a murmur and a symbol.

To see sleep in death, in the sunset
a sad gold, such is poetry
that is immortal and poor. Poetry
returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the evenings a face
looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art should be like that mirror
that reveals to us our own face.

They say that Ulysses, sick of marvels,
cried tears of love at the sight of his Ithaca
green and modest. Art is that Ithaca
of green eternity, not of marvels.

It is also like the endless river
that flows and remains and mirrors the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and is another, like the endless river.


Arte Poética
Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y agua
y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
saber que nos perdemos como el río
y que los rostros pasan como el agua.

Sentir que la vigilia es otro sueño
que sueña no soñar y que la muerte
que teme nuestra carne es esa muerte
de cada noche, que se llama sueño.

Ver en el día o en el año un símbolo
de los días del hombre y de sus años,
convertir el ultraje de los años
en una música, un rumor y un símbolo,

ver en la muerte el sueño, en el ocaso
un triste oro, tal es la poesía
que es inmortal y pobre. La poesía
vuelve como la aurora y el ocaso.

A veces en las tardes una cara
nos mira desde el fondo de un espejo;
el arte debe ser como ese espejo
que nos revela nuestra propia cara.

Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
de verde eternidad, no de prodigios.

También es como el río interminable
que pasa y queda y es cristal de un mismo
Heráclito inconstante, que es el mismo
y es otro, como el río interminable.

Because myth is at the beginning of literature and also at its end

From Borges’ El Hacedor / The Maker:

Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote
Weary of his Spanish homeland, an aging soldier of the king’s army sought comfort in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in the lunar valley where lies the time that dreams squander away, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.

Gently mocking himself, he thought up an impressionable man who, unbalanced from reading fantastic tales, went forth to find feats of arms and enchantments in ordinary places with names like El Toboso and Montiel.

Defeated by reality – by Spain – Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. Miguel de Cervantes briefly outlived him.

For both the dreamer and the man he dreamed, the story was about the clash of opposing worlds: the unreal world of chivalric fiction and the average, everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Neither imagined that with the passage of years the strife would diminish, nor did they imagine that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s scrawny physique would be no less poetic in the future than the adventures of Sinbad or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

Because myth is at the beginning of literature and also at its end.

Devoto Clinic, January 1955.


Parábola de Cervantes y de Quijote
Harto de su tierra de España, un viejo soldado del rey buscó solaz en las vastas geografías de Ariosto, en aquel valle de la luna donde está el tiempo que malgastan los sueños y en el ídolo de oro de Mahoma que robó Montalbán.

En mansa burla de sí mismo, ideó un hombre crédulo que, perturbado por la lectura de maravillas, dio en buscar proezas y encantamientos en lugares prosaicos que se llamaban El Toboso o Montiel.

Vencido por la realidad, por España, don Quijote murió en su aldea natal hacia 1614. Poco tiempo lo sobrevivió Miguel de Cervantes.

Para los dos, para el soñador y el soñado, toda esa trama fue la oposición de dos mundos: el mundo irreal de los libros de caballerías, el mundo cotidiano y común del siglo XVII.

No sospecharon que los años acabarían por limar la discordia, no sospecharon que la Mancha y Montiel y la magra figura del caballero serían, para el porvenir, no menos poéticas que las etapas de Simbad o que las vastas geografías de Ariosto.

Porque en el principio de la literatura está el mito, y asimismo en el fin.

Clínica Devoto, enero de 1955.

To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole

Borges’ prologue to Adolfo Bioy-Casares’ The Invention of Morel (from the NYRB edition). This is the second time I’ve read the novel(la?) and while I can’t quite share Borges’ enthusiasm I do support his line of reasoning from this intro (minus the Proust comment):

AROUND 1880 Stevenson noted that the adventure story was regarded as an object of scorn by the British reading public, who believed that the ability to write a novel without a plot, or with an infinitesimal, atrophied plot, was a mark of skill. In The Dehumanization of Art (1925) Jose Ortega y Gasset, seeking the reason for that scorn, said, “I doubt very much whether an adventure that will interest our superior sensibility can be invented today,” and added that such an invention was “practically impossible.” On other pages, on almost all the other pages, he upheld the cause of the “psychological” novel and asserted that the pleasure to be derived from adventure stories was nonexistent or puerile. This was undoubtedly the prevailing opinion in 1880, 1925, and even 1940. Some writers (among whom I am happy to include Adolfo Bioy Casares) believe they have a right to disagree. The following, briefly, are their reasons.

The first of these (I shall neither emphasize nor attenuate the fact that it is a paradox) has to do with the intrinsic form of the adventure story. The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility. In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of realism. There are pages, there are chapters in Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each day. The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to transcribe reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

I have given one reason of an intellectual sort; there are others of an empirical nature. We hear sad murmurs that our century lacks the ability to devise interesting plots. But no one attempts to prove that if this century has any ascendancy over the preceding ones it lies in the quality of its plots. Stevenson is more passionate, more diverse, more lucid, perhaps more deserving of our unqualified friendship than is Chesterton; but his plots are inferior. De Quincey plunged deep into labyrinths on his nights of meticulously detailed horror, but he did not coin his impression of “unutterable and self-repeating infinities” in fables comparable to Kafka’s. Ortega y Gasset was right when he said that Balzac’s “psychology” did not satisfy us; the same thing could be said, of his plots. Shakespeare and Cervantes were both delighted by the antinomian idea of a girl who, without losing her beauty, could be taken for a man; but we find that idea unconvincing now. I believe I am free from every superstition of modernity, of any illusion that yesterday differs intimately from today or will differ from tomorrow; but I maintain that during no other era have there been novels with such admirable plots as The Turn of the Screw, The Trial, Voyage to the Center of the Earth, and the one you are about to read, which was written in Buenos Aires by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Detective stories—another popular genre in this century that cannot invent plots—tell of mysterious events that are later explained and justified by reasonable facts. In this book Adolfo Bioy Casares easily solves a problem that is perhaps more difficult. The odyssey of marvels he unfolds seems to have no possible explanation other than hallucination or symbolism, and he uses a single fantastic but not supernatural postulate to decipher it. My fear of making premature or partial revelations restrains me from examining the plot and the wealth of delicate wisdom in its execution. Let me say only that Bioy renews in literature a concept that was refuted by St. Augustine and Origen, studied by Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and expressed in memorable cadences by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

In Spanish, works of reasoned imagination are infrequent and even very rare. The classics employed allegory, the exaggerations of satire, and, sometimes, simple verbal incoherence. The only recent works of this type I remember are a story in Leopoldo Lugones’s  Las fuerzas extranas and one by Santiago Dabove: now unjustly forgotten.  The Invention of Morel (the title alludes filially to another island inventor, Moreau) brings a new genre to our land and our language.
I have discussed with the author the details of his plot. I have reread it. To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.
— Jorge Luis Borges

Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing the universe waits, inexhaustible

From Borge’s El Otro, El Mismo (which my Collected Poems takes as The Self and The Other). Borges famously took up Anglo-Saxon in his seventies (eighties?). I hope to do the same with Persian.

Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf

At various times I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.
Used up by the years my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.
Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast encompassing
circle can take in all, accomplish all.
Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Composición escrita en un ejemplar de la gesta de Beowulf

A veces me pregunto qué razones
me mueven a estudiar sin esperanza
de precisión, mientras mi noche avanza
la lengua de los ásperos sajones.
Gastada por los años la memoria
deja caer la en vano repetida
palabra y es así como mi vida
teje y desteje su cansada historia.
Será (me digo entonces) que de un modo
secreto y suficiente el alma sabe
que es inmortal y que su vasto y grave
círculo abarca todo y puede todo.
Más allá de este afán y de este verso
me aguarda inagotable el universo.

Spanish is far the weakest of my languages but I find aspects of this translation baffling. A couple of examples:

lines 2-3 – sin esperanza de precisión (‘without particular hope of satisfaction’). Precisión is exactness. The sense here is not lacking satisfaction (which suggests an emotional element) but lacking mastery at the technical level. I don’t know where the qualifying ‘particular’ crept in from.

final line – ‘me aguarda inagotable el universo’ (‘the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting’). I have a minor quibble with removing the direct object (me) and a more major one with including ‘inviting’ when it doesn’t appear in the original unless you want to give aguarda a double translation ‘waits and invites.’

Virgil set out to write a masterpiece; curiously, he succeeded.

I am rereading Troilus and Cressida and, for lack of engagement, my mind keeps wandering to Homer and Virgil. So here, by association, is Borges’ prologue to The Aeneid from his A Personal Library project (translation included in Selected Non-Fictions):

Leibniz has a parable about two libraries: one of a hundred different books of different worth, the other of a hundred books that are all equally perfect. It is significant that the latter consists of a hundred Aeneids. Voltaire wrote that Virgil may be the work of Homer, but he is the greatest of Homer’s works. Virgil’s preeminence lasted for sixteen hundred years in Europe; the Romantic movement denied and almost erased him. Today he is threatened by our custom of reading books as a function of history, not of aesthetics.

The Aeneid is the highest example of what has been called, without discredit, the artificial epic; that is to say, the deliberate work of a single man, not that which human generations, without knowing it, have created. Virgil set out to write a masterpiece; curiously, he succeeded. I say “curiously” because masterpieces tend to be the daughters of chance or of negligence. As though it were a short poem, this epic was polished, line by line, with the felicitous care that Petronius praised-I’ll never know why-in Horace. Let us examine, almost at random, a few examples.

Virgil does not tell us that the Achaeans waited for darkness to enter Troy; he speaks of the friendly silence of the moon. He does not write that Troy was destroyed, but rather, “Troy was.” He does not write that a life was unfortunate, but rather “The gods understood him in another way.” To express what is now called pantheism, he says, “All things are full of Jupiter.” He does not condemn the aggressive madness of men; he calls it “the love of iron.” He does not tell us that Aeneas and the Sybil wandered alone among the shadows in the dark night; he writes, “Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram.” This is not a mere rhetorical figure, a hyperbaton: “alone” and “dark” have not changed places in the phrase; both forms, the usual and the Virgilian, correspond with equal precision to the scene they represent.

The selection of each word and each turn of phrase also makes Virgil the classic of the classics, in some serene way, a Baroque poet. The carefulness of his writing did not impede the fluidity of his narration of Aeneas’ deeds and adventures. There are events that are almost magical: Aeneas, exiled from Troy, disembarks in Carthage and sees on the walls of a temple images of the Trojan War, images of Priam, Achilles, Hector, and even himself. There are tragic events: the Queen of Carthage who watches the Greek boats leaving and knows that her lover has abandoned her. There is a predictable abundance of heroism, such as these words spoken by a warrior: “My son, learn from me strength and genuine valor; and from others, luck.”

Virgil. Of all the poets of the earth, there is none other who has been listened to with such love. Even beyond Augustus, Rome, and the empire that, across other nations and languages, is still the Empire. Virgil is our friend. When Dante made Virgil his guide and the most continual character in the Commedia, he gave an enduring aesthetic form to that which all men feel with gratitude.

I have fantasized a magical work, a panel that is also a microcosm: Dante’s poem is that panel whose edges enclose the universe.

From the prologue to Nine Dantesque Essays in Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions:

Imagine, in an Oriental library, a panel painted many centuries ago. It may be Arabic, and we are told that all the legends of The Thousand and One Nights are represented on its surface; it may be Chinese, and we learn that it illustrates a novel that has hundreds or thousands of characters. In the tumult of its forms, one shape-a tree like an inverted cone; a group of mosques, vermilion in color, against an iron wall-catches our attention, and from there we move on to others. The day declines, the light is wearing thin, and as we go deeper into the carved surface we understand that there is nothing on earth that is not there. What was, is, and shall be, the history of past and future, the things I have had and those I will have, all of it awaits us somewhere in this serene labyrinth …. I have fantasized a magical work, a panel that is also a microcosm: Dante’s poem is that panel whose edges enclose the universe. Yet I believe that if we were able to read it in innocence (but that happiness is barred to us), its universality would not be the first thing we would notice, and still less its grandiose sublimity. We would, I believe, notice other, less overwhelming and far more delightful characteristics much sooner, perhaps first of all the one singled out by the British Danteans: the varied and felicitous invention of precise traits. In describing a man intertwined with a serpent, it is not enough for Dante to say that the man is being transformed into a serpent and the serpent into a man; he compares this mutual metamorphosis to a flame devouring a page, preceded by a reddish strip where whiteness dies but that is not yet black (Inferno XXV, 64). It is not enough for him to say that in the darkness of the seventh circle the damned must squint to see him; he compares them to men gazing at each other beneath a dim moon or to an old tailor threading a needle (Inferno XV, 19). It is not enough for him to say that the water in the depths of the universe has frozen; he adds that it looks like glass, not water (Inferno XXXII, 24) …. Such comparisons were in Macaulay’s mind when he declared, in opposition to Cary, that Milton’s “vague sublimity” and “magnificent generalities” moved him less than Dante’s specifics. Later, Ruskin (Modern Painters IV, XIV) also condemned Milton’s fog and uncertainty and approved of the strictly accurate topography by which Dante engineered his infernal plane. It is common knowledge that poets proceed by hyperbole: for Petrarch or for Gongora, every woman’s hair is gold and all water is crystal. This crude, mechanical alphabet of symbols corrupts the rigor of words and appears to arise from the indifference of an imperfect observation. Dante forbids himself this error; not one word in his book is unjustified.
The precision I have just noted is not a rhetorical artifice but an affirmation of the integrity, the plenitude, with which each incident of the poem has been imagined. The same may be said of the psychological traits which are at once so admirable and so modest. The poem is interwoven with such traits, of which I will cite a few. The souls destined for hell weep and blaspheme against God; then, when they step onto Charon’s bark, their fear changes to desire and an intolerable eagerness (Inferno III, 124). Dante hears from Virgil’s own lips that Virgil will never enter heaven; immediately he calls him “master” and “sir,” perhaps to show that this confession does not lessen his affection, perhaps because, knowing Virgil to be lost, he loves him all the more (Inferno IV, 39). In the black hurricane of the second circle, Dante wishes to learn the root of Paolo and Francesca’s love; Francesca tells him that the two loved each other without knowing it, “soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto” [we were alone, suspecting nothing] , and that their love was revealed to them by a casual reading. Virgil rails against proud spirits who aspire to encompass infinite divinity with mere reason; suddenly he bows his head and is silent, because one of those unfortunates is he (Purgatorio III, 34). On the rugged slope of Purgatory, the shade of Sordello the Mantuan inquires of Virgil’s shade as to its homeland; Virgil says Mantua; Sordello interrupts and embraces him (Purgatorio VI, 58). The novels of our own day follow mental processes with extravagant verbosity; Dante allows them to glimmer in an intention or a gesture.

Utopians are heedless of methods

Aaron Rosenblum from Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Temple of the Iconoclasts.  I discovered Wilcock through an interview with Roberto Bolano where he traces the lineage of his own Nazi Literature in the Americas from Marcel Schwob’s Vies imaginaires to Alfonso Reyes’ Real and Imagined Portraits (and what is the Spanish title?, this is very hard to find) to Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy.  

Utopians are heedless of methods. To render the human species happy, they are prepared to subject it to murder, torture, lethal injection, incineration, deportation, sterilization, quartering, lobotomy, electrocution, military invasion, bombing, etc. Everything depends on the project. Somehow it is encouraging to think that even in the absence of a project, men are and always will be prepared to murder, torture, sterilize, quarter, bomb, etc.

Aaron Rosenblum, born in Danzig, raised in Birmingham, also resolved to bring happiness to humanity. The injuries he caused were not immediate. He published a book on the topic, but the book long lay neglected, so he garnered few adherents. If he had enjoyed a following, in all likelihood Europe would now be without a single potato, street light, ballpoint pen, piano, or condom.

Aaron Rosenblum’s idea was extremely simple. He wasn’t the first to think of it, but he was the first to pursue it to its utmost consequences. Only on paper, however, since humanity does not always desire to do what it must to be happy. Or it prefers to choose its own methods, which, as with the best global projects, also entail murder, torture, imprisonment, exile, germ warfare, drug therapies, etc. Chronologically, Rosenblum’s utopia was unfortunate. The book destined to bring him fame, Back to Happiness; or, Joyride to Hell, appeared in 1940, precisely when the intellectual world was busily defending itself from another, equally utopian project of social reform — total reform.

Rosenblum first asked himself: Which was the happiest period of world history? Believing himself to be English, and as such the trustee of a well-defined literary tradition, he decided that the happiest historical period was the magnificently exciting reign of Elizabeth I, under the sage guidance of Lord Burghley. Or at least this was the moment when Shakespeare emerged, England discovered America, and the Catholic Church was forever defeated and forced to seek refuge in the remote Mediterranean. Rosenblum had himself been a High Church Anglican for many years.

Hence, the project of Back to Happiness was this: to return the world to 1580. To abolish coal, machines, engines, the electric light, corn, petroleum, film, asphalt streets, newspapers, the United States, airplanes, the vote, gasoline, parrots, motorcycles, the Rights of Man, tomatoes, steamships, the iron and steel industries, the pharmaceutical industry, the Eiffel Tower, Newton and gravitation, Milton, Dickens, Mickey Mouse, turkeys, surgery, railroads, aluminum, museums, anilines, guano, celluloid, Belgium, dynamite, the weekend, the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, mandatory education, iron bridges, the bus, light artillery, disinfectants, coffee. Tobacco could remain, seeing that Sir Walter Raleigh smoked.

By the same token, it was necessary to reestablish: debtors’ prison; the gallows for thieves; slavery for blacks; the stake for witches; ten years of compulsory military service; the custom of abandoning babies by the road at birth; torches and candles; the practice of dining in a hat with a knife; the use of the rapier, cutlass, and poniard; hunting with bows; brigandage in the woods; persecution of the Jews; the study of Latin; the prohibition against women appearing on the stage; buccaneers attacking Spanish galleons; the use of the horse for transport and the ox for motor power; bearbaiting; primogeniture; the Maltese Knights at Malta; scholastic logic; the plague, smallpox, and typhus as forms of population control; respect for nobility; mud puddles in central urban streets; wooden buildings; bloodletting; swans breeding on the Thames and hawks in castles; alchemy as a pastime; astrology as a science; the institution of vassalage; trial by ordeal; the lute indoors, the trumpet in the open air; tournaments, damascened armor, coats of arms; the chamber pot — in a word, the past.

Now, it was obvious, even to Rosenblum’s eyes, that the planning and realization of such a utopia in 1940 would require time and patience that exceeded the enthusiastic collaboration of the most influential segment of public opinion. Adolf Hitler, it is true, seemed disposed to facilitate the most compelling aspects of the project, especially those involving eliminations. But like a good Christian Aaron Rosenblum could not but notice that the German head of state was letting himself get carried away by tasks that were ultimately secondary, like the suppression of the Jews and the military domination of Europe, instead of seriously applying himself to staving off the Turks, for example, or spreading syphilis, or illuminating missals.

Furthermore, however much Hitler lent the English a helping hand, he seemed secretly to nurture a certain hostility toward them. Rosenblum realized that he would have to do everything by himself — mobilize public opinion, and solicit signatures and support from scientists, sociologists, ecologists, writers, artists, and, in general, lovers of the past. Unfortunately, three months after the publication of the book, the author was recruited by the Home Guard to watch over a warehouse of absolutely no importance, in the most deserted area on the Yorkshire coast. He didn’t even have a telephone at his disposal. His utopia ran the risk of foundering.

It was he who foundered, however, and in a most unusual manner. As he wandered down the beach, gathering cockles and other sixteenth-century items for lunch, he was killed in an air raid, apparently an exercise, and blown to pieces in a pit. His remains were immediately swallowed by the sea.

Mention has already been made of the utopians’ lethal vocation. The bomb that destroyed Rosenblum also bespoke a utopia, one not very different from his, even if it appeared more violent. Essentially, his project was based on the progressive rarefaction of the present. Starting not with Birmingham, which was too dirty and would have required at least a century of cleaning, but with a small provincial town like Penzance, it was simply a question of delimiting a zone — perhaps acquiring it with funds from the yet-to-be-founded Sixteenth-Century Society — and excluding, with the most fastidious resolve, each and every thing, custom, style, musical composition, disease, and word dating back to the incriminated centuries, that is, the seventeenth, the eighteenth, the nineteenth, and the twentieth. A fairly complete list of excluded objects, concepts, events, and phenomena fills four chapters in Rosenblum’s book.

At the same time, the sponsoring institution, namely the Sixteenth-Century Society, would provide for the reintroduction of the aforementioned items (brigands, candles, swords, codpieces, beasts of burden, and so forth, through another four chapters of the book). This would be sufficient to convert the nascent colony into a paradise, or something very similar to a paradise. From London people would hasten in throngs to take the plunge into the 1500s — to wear doublets and ruffs, to crack nuts at the Globe Theatre, to empty their chamber pots into the open sewers. The resulting filth would immediately initiate the process of natural selection necessary to reduce the population to 1580 levels.

With the contributions of visitors and new members, the Sixteenth-Century Society would find itself in a position to enlarge its field of action, gradually expanding even as far as London. Sweeping four centuries of houses and iron manufactures from the capital was a problem that required a separate solution, probably the announcement of a competition for projects open to all young lovers of the past. The other utopian, the One Across the Channel, seemed already to have something like this in mind. Unsure, Rosenblum opted for encircling: perhaps a mere cincture of the sixteenth century around London would suffice to precipitate a total collapse.

The project, as imagined, proceeded rapidly to cover all of England, and from England, Europe. In reality, the two utopians were heading for the same goal by different paths: to ensure the happiness of humankind. Hitler’s utopia, meanwhile, fell into that extreme discredit with which everyone is familiar. Rosenblum’s, in contrast, resurfaces periodically in different guises: some favor the Middle Ages, others the Roman Empire, still others the State of Nature, and Greenblatt even favors the return of the Ape. If the estimated population of the chosen period were subtracted from current figures for the world, one would find that billions of people, or hominins, were condemned to death, in accordance with the project. These proposals flourish; Rosenblum’s spirit continues to wander the globe.