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Posts Tagged ‘borges’

The art of book vandalism

In history, reblog on July 23, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Many centuries ago in China, shortly before the construction of the Great Wall, Emperor Qin commanded that all books must be destroyed. The only ones excluded were useful manuscripts, like books on astronomy and agriculture. Jorge L. Borges wrote that in order for the leader to truly establish himself as the first emperor of the unified kingdoms of China, he must first erase history. The emperor prevented the forces that shattered this unity, in turn hastening the construction of the structure. For imaginative purposes, one could think of the Wall as being made of books instead of bricks, since the burning of books was totally in conjunction with the project.

Franz Kafka’s The Great Wall of China, a most exemplary piece showing the so-called “Kafkaesque process of non-arrival” (see John Updike’s introduction to Franz Kafka: the Complete Short Stories), speculates how the Chinese citizens were socialized into the project by having the entire educational system revolve around the notion of “building”. The most important skills were related to constructing something indestructible, in the masonic sense of the word.

(There is a legend that Emperor Qin ordered some 500 Confucian scholars to be buried alive, in response to some illustrious people who opposed his tyrannical ways.)

Borges, the librarian of the world, pursued the idea that books constitute the substance of the universe in The Library of Babel. That was the extent of his bibliophilia. This fictional essay is the first Borgesian piece that I ever loved. What was most astonishing is how he calls attention to the physical constitution of the book rather than the text. For him, even the pages and the binding are sublime.

Today, contemporary artists have found a lot of uses from the physical constitution of books. The pictures are from OffBeatEarth:

Below are promotional images for Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.


Reincarnation Bank, or How the Transmigration of Souls will change the Banking Industry

In popular economics on July 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm

There is a bank that can manage your assets to make sure you still own them in your next life. Tyler Cowen, co-author of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, found out that there is a Reincarnation Bank owned by a certain 2i Limited. Eccentric markets are interesting, even on the level of scholarship. We have here a hybrid of the theory of the transmigration of souls and the theory of banking. The process seems simple: you deposit now, then you can withdraw from the same bank in your next life. Too bad if you’re reborn as a duck or a horse. According to Jorge L. Borges’ knowledge of Buddhism, the probability of a person being reborn as a human being is the probability of a tortoise rising to the surface of the sea and finding a solitary ring, which can float anywhere in the world, around its head.

This bank’s theory of transmigration of souls has three assumptions before the transaction can be complete from deposit to withdrawal:

1. You do not attain Enlightenment (hence you are reborn);

2. You are reborn human; and,

3. You can remember your past lives.

A favorable condition must fulfill all these conditions. Granting metempsychosis fulfills these criteria, this is how Reincarnation Bank proposes to facilitate withdrawals:

As in this life, in the next you will have memories of previous lives. One of these recollections will be of your arrangement with Reincarnation Bank. Whatever version of the internet or data retrieval mechanisms in use at the time of your return, you will renew your contact with Reincarnation Bank and through regression you will recall the details/instructions that you left at the time of making your deposit. A custodian of Reincarnation Bank will open your letter privately in your presence and will ask you to repeat the details contained therein (whilst in regression). Once this has been satisfactorily achieved, funds/property will be handed back to you and the account closed.

Sounds like a passage from a Buddhist science fiction.

The universe of theories can be postulated in the format of a Tree. Each theory does not exist autonomously. The influential ones tend to coalesce and define what’s common sense, practical and enforceable. The whole arrangement sounds like the work of a lunatic, a prankster or a desperate fraudster, but maybe if we develop the theory of metempsychosis to the fullest until it is inscribed as common sense, a Reincarnation Bank wouldn’t sound so bad. The Catholics have done it with the selling of indulgences.

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Arthur Waley and the Translators of the “Tao Te Ching”

The Translators of “Tao Te Ching” and Arthur Waley

In book review, critique on July 21, 2009 at 6:01 am

Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese classics are considered the most readable for modern readers. His abridgement of Wu Cheng-en’s The Journey to the West, certainly one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China and which he retitled as Monkey, is praised by Jorge L. Borges (the greatest writer not to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature) as the product of a translator who is simultaneously a sinologist and a man of letters.

I recently finished a version of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching by Waley in the book The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought (1934). The Tao Te Ching is composed of 81 short poems talking about the basic principles of Taoism. I have since loved the book after picking up a copy translated by the scholar Stephen Mitchell, who also translated the last version of Bhagavad Gita that I’ve read. Taken on face value, the book of Tao is full of paradoxes, ironies and contradictions, but once the reader has familiarized himself with the iconoclasm of, say, Buddhism and the Zen sect, he will understand the rationale behind these linguistic features.

Waley’s translation of the book, however, is different from his other projects. He admits that the modern reader wanting to read the ancient text for practical ends must look at the version of Richard Wilhelm.  His Tao Te Ching will not try to achieve what Wilhelm’s version has done for the modern reader. Waley reconstructs the ancient book based on historical context in order to capture how it was received by the people during the time of its initial publication. The position of the text is then interpreted side-by-side with the positions of other schools of thought at that time.

There are two kinds of translation. One is historical, the other (as Waley calls it) scriptural. Waley’s version serves the interest of specialists in Chinese literature and sinology. Wilhelm’s version, perhaps like Mitchell’s, is for readers who want to read the book for modern purposes. I have not seen Wilhelm’s translation but Mitchell’s version is surely more readable than Waley’s, but not necessarily better. A reader-friendly translation is not always equal to an accurate one, and the notion of a “best version” depends on the purpose of the translation.

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Kafka, Borges and Perfection

In book review, literary on July 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm

The following piece, “Before the Law”, is the introductory parable of Franz Kafka: the Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer and with foreword by John Updike. What a powerful hook! The closest literary companion of Kafka is the Argentinian master of labyrinths, Jorge L. Borges. Kafka writes best in parables and short narratives. Borges never published a novel.

The literary figures of Kafka and Borges (not necessarily the empirical authors) are obsessed with perfection.  While Borges pretended that the books he wanted to write have already been written, Kafka never “completed” his stories — i.e. they are complete and perfect in their incompleteness. For these two authors, the notion of literary perfection is in the negative.

I’ve never seen a more perfect preamble for a collection than this:

BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tar-tar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many at-tempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts every- thing, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted any- thing.” During these many years the man fixes his at-tention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He for- gets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly, later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contempla-tion of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper’s mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware t of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a ques-tion he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insati-able.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admit-tance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

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In the mood for Zen

In philosophy on July 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

How to transform your pessimism into a resource: see the glass as already broken.

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

The quote is from this source. Another blogger explains the Zen habit:

So when the nice glass you bought inevitably falls and breaks, someday, you might get upset. But not if you see the glass as already broken, from the day you get it. You know it’ll break someday, so from the beginning, see it as already broken. Be a time-traveler, or someone with time-traveling vision, and see the future of this glass, from this moment until it inevitably breaks.

This sounds like the ending of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the hero wakes up from the illusion of time and sees all past, present and future in one object or moment. It’s not simple pessimism, but a glimpse of eternity.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay entitled A History of Eternity, reports about an ancient conception of eternity not as time without end, but the conjunction of all moments. Ludwig Wittgenstein is more parsimonious: eternity is simply the here and now, because it is timeless, and the present moment is always a state of timelessness.

Argumentum Ornithologicum

In literary, reblog on July 13, 2009 at 6:03 am

by Jorge Luis Borges

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted. In this case I saw fewer than ten birds (let us say) and more than one, but did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, which was not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That integer – not-nine, not-eight, not-seven, not-six, not- five etc. – is inconceivable. Ergo, God exists.

(via Petra Magno)

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