24 August 2005

Enormous reality

"Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently. If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem: a poem demands pronunciation. Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song."

~ Jorge Luis Borges, born on this day in 1899

Annie Dillard on "contemporary modernist characters":
Borges characters may be ideas. They are not ideas represented by people-like characters, as in the "novel of ideas" such as The Plague, in which the Doctor, representing Scientific Reason, goes about acting scientifically reasonable and voicing Scientific Reason's opinion of everything; instead, Borges characters are ideas considered as objects for contemplation: Funes the Memorious on his deathbed, an idea in a sheet, more referred to than present, or Pierre Menard, absent altogether. Later Borges characters, on the other hand, are again lines of force, mythic and wholly externalized objects whose roles are identical with their definitions: the bandit robs, the overseer whips, the gunslinger slings guns. It would be ludicrous if anyone saw these characters as trapped in roles for which they are personally unsuited. In the world of surfaces, human reality coincides with social appearance.
Alastair Reed on Borges:
Borges used to tell an endearing story that continues to haunt me. When he was a child, his paternal grandmother lived in the house with his family. She was English; and Borges described how, as a small child, he knew that when he went to visit his grandmother, he had to speak in a certain way, and that when he spoke to the maids in the kitchen or to his mother, he had to speak in a quite different way. Much later, he learned that the way in which he spoke with his grandmother was called "English" and the way he spoke with the maids and his mother was called "Spanish."

I think this is a crucial element in Borges's formation. For people who are truly bilingual, an immediate separation sets in between language and the unsayable beyond, what we call "reality." In other words, this object is not a desk; "desk" is merely one of many words we use to describe it. A gulf sets in between what we perceive and the words we use.

Borges, I think, was always aware of this intense dualism. We have a dual nature. We are physical beings who live in the continuum of time, and we are also language users. Language enables us to take pieces of our lived time, and to move them out of time into the form of what Borges always called a "fiction"--poems, essays, stories, they are all fictions. A fiction is a construct of language, and we make fictions to make sense of a reality which we fail to understand. This is the essence of Borges: our fictions are attempts to bring the world into order for the time being, but unless we continue to believe in them, they dissolve like smoke.

There is one quotation which Borges loved--I think it was his favorite quotation in all of English literature. It was from an essay of G. K. Chesterton's on a fairly unknown painter called G. F. Watts. "Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn forest. . . . Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire." In other words, language can never accommodate the enormous reality beyond it....
"There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite." ~ Borges

Make sure to stop by The Garden of Forking Paths and get lost in its myriad trails... Also, the wonderful Borges links at wood s lot.

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