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.

A limited sector

From An Evening with Ramon Bonavena in the the Borges and Bioy Casares co-authored Chronicles of Bustos Domecq.  All the sections are simpler versions of the paradoxes of literary creation and content that continued to fascinate him through his solo writings so it’s surprising that none have made it into the various Borges collections I’ve seen or have ever, that I can tell, been reprinted.  This one covers an author who writes a multi-volume descriptive work on the contents of the corner of his own writing desk.

“My plan, at the beginning, did not exceed the bounds of literature, or, even worse, of realism. I wanted—there was nothing out of the ordinary about this, really—to produce a novel of the land, straightforward, with deeply human characters and the usual protest against absentee landowners. … Working my way into my subject, I came to realize that the major difficulty lay not in the characters’ names but rather was of a psychological order. How was I to put myself into my neighbor’s head? How was I to guess what others were thinking without abjuring realism? The answer was clear, but at first I could not see it. Then I considered the prospect of a novel in which the characters were domestic animals. But once again, how was I to intuit the cerebral processes of a dog, how was I to enter into a world perhaps less visual than olfactory? At a loss, I fell back on myself and thought that the one remaining possibility rested in autobiography. But even here lay the labyrinth. Who was I? Today’s self, bewildered; yesterday’s, forgotten; tomorrow’s, unpredictable? What could be more unattainable than the mind? If I am self-conscious as I write, self-consciousness creeps in, a new factor; if I surrender to free association, I surrender to chance. I don’t know whether you recall the story told, I believe by Cicero, of a woman who went to a temple to consult with an oracle and unaware of it spoke the very words of the answer she sought. Something similar happened to me here in Ezpeleta . Not so much in search of a solution but one day looking for something to do, I read over my notes. And there lay the key I was after. There, in the words limited sector. When I wrote them, I was simply using a commonplace; when I reread them, a sudden revelation dazzled me. A limited sector . . . What sector could be more limited than a corner of the deal table at which I worked? I decided then to restrict myself to one corner, to what that corner might offer. I measured with this carpenter’s rule—which you may examine at your pleasure—the leg of the aforementioned table and verified that it stood at thirty-one inches above floor level, a height I deemed adequate. To have gone on indefinitely upward would have meant to knock my head against the ceiling, then the roof, and quite soon astronomy; to have delved down would have sunk me into the basement, out onto the subtropical plain, if not into the very bowels of the globe. The chosen corner, at least, offered no lack of interesting possibilities. The copper ashtray, the blue-and-red pointed pencil, and so on, et cetera.”

Some footnotes

These are all the footnotes from Borges and Bioy-Casares’ Six Problems for Don Isidoro.  Like the excerpt a few days ago mocking trends in experimental poetry, the authors here are playfully taking the piss on a practice that has only grown worse since their time – the useless footnote.

[1] Affectionate nickname for H. Bustos Domecq used among his intimates. [Footnote by H.B.D.]

[2] See footnote 2. [Footnote by H.B.D.]

[3] Carlos Anglada’s commendable bibliography also comprises the following: the crude naturalistic novel Drawing-Room Flesh (1914), the magnanimous palinode Drawing-Room Spirit (1914), the long since superseded manifesto Words to Pegasus (1917), the travel notes In the Beginning Was the Pullman Car (1923), and the four numbered numbers of the review Zero (1924-27).

[4] Mario is sometimes so aggressive. [Footnote contributed by Dona Mariana Ruiz Villalba de Anglada.]

[5] Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate—Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity. [Footnote submitted by Dr. William Ockham.]

[6] Not at all. We—contemporaries of the machine gun and biceps—repudiate this delicate rhetoric. I should say, with the finality of a bullet, “I put salesroom and atelier on the ground floor. I lock the Chinamen upstairs.” [Footnote written in the hand of Carlos Anglada.]

[7] In fact, the doctor smiled and gave a greeting. [Author’s note.]

[8] The duelists have crossed swords. The reader can already hear the clash of rival steel. [Marginal note by Gervasio Montenegro.]

[9] A bucolic touch. [Original note by José Formento.]

Footnote 1 – the ‘author’ references himself in third person.

Footnote 2 – points recursively to itself.

Footnote 3 – for no logically apparent reason continues an unfinished list started in the main text.

Footnote 4 – a useless aside from a recurring character in the stories

Footnote 5 – a quotation ‘submitted’ by the semi-disguised fourteenth century philosopher William of Ockham.

Footnote 6 – another useless aside from a recurring character.

Footnote 7 – ‘author’s’ correction of his narrator’s sequence – “the face that now greets you and smiles.”

Footnote 8 – a third useless aside from a third recurring character.

Footnote 9 – a fourth useless aside from a fourth recurring character.

Some Borgesian banter

From The God of the Bulls in Six Problems for Don Isidoro by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares.

Unlike the reader, Parodi was unacquainted with Carlos Anglada. Don Isidro had not looked into the sonnets of The Senile Pagodas (1912) or the pantheistic odes of I Am All Others (1921) or the capital letters of I Spy with My Little Eye (1928) or the telluric novel The Cahiers of a Cowhand (1931) or a single one of the Hymns for Millionaires (five hundred numbered copies, plus the popular Catholic Boy Scouts Press edition, 1934) or the Antiphon of the Loaves and Fishes (1935) or—outrageous as it may seem—the learned imprint of Test Tube Editions, Inc. (Loose Leaves of a Diver, Collected and Edited by the Minotaur, 1939).* It pains us to confess that in the course of twenty years of imprisonment, Parodi had not had time to study Carlos Anglada’s Itinerary, The Genesis and Development of a Lyric Poet. In this indispensable study, José Formento, advised by the master himself, documents Anglada’s various periods: his modernist beginnings; his assimilation (at times transcription) of Joaquin Belda; his pantheistic fervor of 1921 when, thirsting for complete communion with nature, the poet rejected any sort of footwear and limped, bruised and bleeding, among the flower beds of his attractive villa out in Vicente López; his rejection of impersonal intellectualism—those now celebrated years when Anglada, in the company of a governess and a Chilean version of D. H. Lawrence, paid many an intrepid visit to the lakes in Palermo Park, childishly dressed in a sailor suit and armed with a hoop and a scooter; his Nietzschean reawakening, which germinated in Hymns for Millionaires, a work that was based on an article by Azorín and upheld aristocratic values but which Anglada would ultimately disown when he became the popular catechumen of the Eucharistic Congress; and finally, his altruistic forays into the provinces, where the master submits to the scalpel of criticism the latest unpublished generation of poets, for whom Test Tube Editions, Inc., provides a forum thanks to its nearly one hundred subscribers and projected handful of thin-nish booklets.

*Carlos Anglada’s commendable bibliography also comprises the following: the crude naturalistic novel Drawing-Room Flesh (1914), the magnanimous palinode Drawing-Room Spirit (1914), the long since superseded manifesto Words to Pegasus (1917), the travel notes In the Beginning Was the Pullman Car (1923), and the four numbered numbers of the review Zero (1924-27).

Yes, I think that the novel leads readers to vanity and egoism

From Buddha and Personality in v. 2 of Conversations between Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari:

Ferrari: Of course, you also indicated in that essay that the Western novel prefers ‘the flavour of souls’, in Proust and in other novelists.  And in Buddhism the negation of that flavour of souls, of that individuality of souls.

Borges: Yes, I think that the novel leads readers to vanity and egoism.  Novels talk about a single person and the features that distinguish them from other people, which encourages the reader to try and be a specific person and to have features that distinguish them from other people.  So that reading a novel indirectly promotes egoism and vanity and trying to be interesting.  Which is what happens with all young people.  When I was young, I was purposefully unhappy, because I wanted to be, well, Hamlet, or Byron, or Poe, or Baudelaire, or a character in a Russian novel.  On the other hand, now I try to seek calm, and not think about the personality, well, of a writer called Borges, who lived, let’s say, in the twentieth century (laughs), although he was born in the nineteenth.  I try t o forget those pedantic circumstance, no?  I try to live calmly, forgetting that character who is my companion.

Because if you don’t hurry, I’ll die before you get to me

From vol. 2 of Conversations, interviews in the early 1980s between Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges (pg 49-50).

Ferrari: Talking about that – courage seems to be another of her characteristics.  One has to remember the telephone calls!

Borges: Yes, she once received a telephone call and a duly coarse, menacing voice said to her, “I’m going to kill you and your son.” “Why, senor?” my mother asked with a rather surprising courtesy. “Because I’m a Peronist.” “Well,” my mother said, “as far as my son is concerned, he leaves the house at 10 every morning.  All you have to do is wait for him and kill him.  As for me, I’m now (I don’t remember what age she was) 80-something years old – I would advise you not to waste your time talking on the telephone!  Because if you don’t hurry, I’ll die before you get to me.”  Then the voice put the phone down.  I asked her the day after, “Did someone call last night?” “Yes,” she said, “some fool called me at two in the morning,” and then she repeated the conversation.  After that there were no more calls.  Of course, that nuisance-caller terrorist must have been so shocked that he didn’t dare repeat his offence.

Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him.

The following throwaway remark appears in one of Borges’ lectures on English literature (collected and edited as Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature):

There was a legend, or story, that Johnson had an argument with a bookseller and felled him with a blow, not with a cane but with a book, a folio volume, which makes the anecdote more literary and also testifies to Johnson’s great physical strength, for such manuscripts are difficult to handle, especially in the middle of a fight.

Boswell’s account is a mere sketch since the event took place before he and Johnson came together, but it – if Boswell can be trusted in such matters – confirms the essential reality of what Borges takes more as symbol-laden exaggeration.

1742: AETAT. 33.]—In 1742 he wrote . . . ‘Proposals for Printing Bibliotheca Harleiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl of Oxford.’ He was employed in this business by Mr. Thomas Osborne the bookseller, who purchased the library for 13,000l., a sum which Mr. Oldys says, in one of his manuscripts, was not more than the binding of the books had cost; yet, as Dr. Johnson assured me, the slowness of the sale was such, that there was not much gained by it. It has been confidently related, with many embellishments, that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had from Johnson himself. ‘Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber.’

Sadly, it must remain unclear whether Johnson deserves praise for his dexterous handling of a full folio.