Religion in Vajhoros, V. e.

One Caravan School

Not all acquiesced to the Four Caravans Edict. An iconoclastic clerical faction, most commonly among the incendiary preachers sent to eradicate the native religion of Nalai, rejected what they saw as a populist dilution of their religion, and insisted that there could only ever be one caravan to follow – the caravan of the church. Icons are a superstitious distraction; the empire has no authority without the church; the family cannot guide its children unless it is itself guided by the church. The church, therefore, is the font of all wisdom. As the purpose of the law is to guide toward the attenuation of tsaien in the afterlife, the church is the font of all law.

The organised church, however, has long since been purified of any One Caravan elements; One Caravan considers this fortunate, as the metropolitan system is a tool for control of the church by the Emperor. Indeed, little of the apparent One Caravan ‘church’ has survived persecution. Abnegation is performed in small groups, guided by the presence of a clergyman, usually in private residence. There is no devotion, and much focus is placed on the sermon. The material for sermons is always derived from the writings or words of theologians; becoming a theologian is simply a matter of becoming religiously learned, and being ‘accredited’ by a shoni, which for One Caravan School is an ad hoc assembly of other theologians.

The mystical side of One Caravan is displayed in their practice of solitary abnegation – occurring rarely, in advance of important occasions or to mark some celebration or tragedy, this abnegation may last for hours or days. Penitential fasting is also common. In general, however, One Caravan is a practical, philosophical religion, shorn of the ‘superstitious’ and ceremonial aspects of its sister-faiths. The focus is the philosophical derivation of moral laws. In this derivation, there may be divergences between theologians, and over time several major schools have emerged.

One Caravan School has long been persecuted as a danger to the state, and in many areas it has been destroyed entirely, yet in rural, isolated areas it has survived, and as it has dwindled it has become more tolerated. More moderate theological schools have been able to accommodate obedience to secular authorities, making their sect less politically contentious; their steadfast rejection of superstition has mostly saved them from rural witchhunts. Indeed, they currently enjoy quite a positive reputation, particularly as they gradually migrate to the more liberal cities – they are seen as puritanical, rational and literate. The School is increasingly attractive to the scientifically-minded, and is now common among engineers and bureaucrats.

Reply to Blog of the Fallen

This is a reply to this post at another blog; it wouldn’t fit in their comments, so…

Please note, incidentally, that in the following I’m not defending the handful of reviews that I’ve happened to post on this blog (what poor fool would be so lunatic as to do that? I’m under no delusions…), but rather a general style and purpose of reviewing (and thinking) which I happen to have attempted to enact here.

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I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding. Repeatedly (both here and in your earlier post/comments), you deride the idea of quantification because what is being quantified is ‘subjective’; for instance, you say that “the mentalité behind these reviews may be a desire to organize, to quantify, to place into neat categories things that are subjective in nature”; but this is precisely the point!

These things are subjective; therefore, they can be organised, quantified, and placed into neat categories. Only in the realm of subjective experience do we have that authority, that power. The subjective is not some nebulous, intactile, air that shrouds our sight of the objective; the subjective is what is solid, is graspable, is manipulable. It is the objective that is illusory, the objective that is the impermissable shadow cast by our collective subjectivity.

That subjectivity is quantised. Or rather, subjective experience is divisible (ie can be divided by us) into the intentional and the phenomenal; that is to say, into what I think ABOUT a thing, and what I think OF a thing. It may be profitable sometimes to discuss what I think about a thing – the intellectual meanderings of my mind upon a topic – but we cannot ignore the fact that, however much I may like to think about it, I am also affected by it. It has an impact upon me; however impartial I may be in my thoughts-about, I will always have distinct and definite thoughts-of as well. This is true of all things, though my thoughts-of are often private, and because they are often unjustified or unpopular, I am averse to discussing them. They do not usually matter when discussing the topic in hand.

Art, however, is different. Art is fundamentally not an intentional, not a propositional, activity. Art is not science or philosophy, discourses on facticity to be accepted or denied, or rejected or incorporated or reformed. Art is distinguished from other occupations by its paramount emphasis upon phenomenal content. Art HITS us; the impression it leaves is its defining mark. If it leaves no impression it is merely second-rate philosophy, or unsubstantiated social science. [This is not to say that art may not provoke propositional reactions as well – and often, our propositional considerations, as of a concept particularly revolutionary or alien, may themselves have a phenomenal consequence]. And it is this dimension of experience, the phenomenal content, which is quantised. Feel free to test this: scratch yourself; now wallop yourself with a hammer. Here are two phenomenal experiences; and almost every element of them is a quantity. That scream as the hammer hits: that means “this is substantially more painful than the scratch was!”. MORE painful. Is the scream short, a brief little whelp? “The scratch was LESS painful, but it lasted LONGER”. Of course, after the pain of the hammer may be another pain – a dull, throbbing agony throughout your hand; and then you can say “this pain lasts LONGER, and is also LESS FOCUSED”. Put your hand into ice, and it may still hurt, but you may think “the pain of the hammer was familiar, whereas this pain of the cold ice is LESS COMMON in my experience.” Of course, pain is only one dimension of experience. We may imagine pains inflicted in combination with flashes of light; in which case we may say “the second pain was greater, but more acute, and more localised; but the light-perception that accompanied it was brighter, as well as longer, and further into the blue side of the spectrum”.

Just so when we are hit by a work of art. “I found this book more thrilling, but less intellectually engaging.” Two concerns to address: first, even a phenomenal reaction that is extremely complex and multifaceted may be ‘resolved’ into componant reactions in pre-specified dimensions. Even if a perfect expression would require infinite dimensions, the addition of dimensions to the description can come closer and closer to a perfect expression – and as the phenomenon is known only through the vagaries and inconstancies of memory, a close approximation is just as perfect as perfection (perfect accuracy in describing a vague position is only a turn of phrase). Secondly, you may think that these individual dimensions cannot be consolidated into an overall vector – but we know that this is false, because phenomenal experience is essentially practical in content. You may say “oh, I don’t know whether I prefered the long, dull pain or the the short, sharp pain” – but we can discover which you prefer by setting you the choice and watching how you act. To which experiences are you more greatly attracted? From which are you more powerfully averted? Consider an enjoyable meal, of your favourite foods, prepared exactly as you would like them; consider being torn apart by rampaging baboons. There is no doubt that most of us have a definite opinion as to which of these we would prefer. Now, it is certainly true that there are middle cases, where we find it hard to reckon a given particular against a given other. Fine – but this does not gainsay (as our broader case has proved)that experiences may be more or less attractive, only that attraction is a vague dimension in which the value given to things is not a point, but rather a margin of error.

You may think that this does not show that this spectrum of experience can be rendered with numbers, even if you accept that experience may be ‘more’ or ‘less’ attractive. But this is to misunderstand numbers. Numbers, you are right, fix things against a scale, but it is wrong to think that this scale is external; numbers fix things against each other. When we say “numbers”, all we mean is “trilateral comparison”. If I have two objects and rate them by size, I may say “more” and “less” large; but if I have three, then I invent numbers. Saying a pain is 1 hurt, a second pain is 3 hurt, and a third pain is 2 hurt… this simply is a quicker way of saying “the third pain is more intense than the first pain, but less intense than the second”. If (as is evident from the coherence of human activity) our rankings do conventionally approximate to transitivity (if I prefer having lunch to being eaten by a lion, and I prefer being eaten by a lion to being ripped apart by baboons, then I prefer having lunch to being ripped apart by baboons), then our rankings can by definition be expressed in a numerical scale – even though, or indeed precisely because, they are wholely subjective.

Of course, it may be said: “yes of course, they are quantifiable, but that does not mean we should quantify them”. Well, sometimes it is not appropriate to do so. On other occasions, it is appropriate. A review is one of those cases. You draw the analogy to reviews of appliances – fair enough. A book is an appliance. A book exists to be useful – even if the only use is our own enjoyment. Or our own unenjoyment; or a change in our views; or simply having our minds taken off other things. There are many possible uses of books, but books are never read for no reason. Even if you believe that art exists for art’s sake only – it still exists FOR art’s sake. It is therefore appropriate to say how useful the book turned out to be, if we are to say anything at all – and if we are to be useful to others we must either write entirely for an audience that has one use only for books, or we must hedge our bets and address many possible uses.

What else, after all, can we say about the phenomenal experience of art – that is to say, about the constitutive dimension of art as art? “It made me think about…” – no! That is only propositional. “It made me feel…” – how? How did it make you feel? You have only two options – a metaphor, or a comparison. To use a metaphor (“it made me feel like a flower touched by the first cold wind of autumn”) is itself a work of art, and places a screen of incomprehension between your reader and the work – unless they have exactly the same imagination as you, you tell them nothing at all, and are of no use to them. To use a comparison is fair enough – but once you use more than one comparison, you are (as explained above) using a numerical scale, even if you do not state the numbers yourself.

I do, as you say, feel authoritative when I review things – not because of some borrowed authority of Famous Critics (I know of none, care for none, and have need of none), or even, more respectably, of Famous Reviewers (a reviewer, unlike a critic, speaks only for themselves, and so their authority can hardly be borrowed by another) – but rather simply because I know that I AM authoritative. I am stating, with authority, absolute and objective facts about the text. How do I know this? Because I have considered my perceptions of the text, with patience and analysis, and do not believe I can currently better these statements. Therefore, who is to gainsay me? Another reviewer may say another thing – but he is not reviewing the same thing as I am. My perception of the text IS the text; there is no other thing, separate from our perceptions. All there is in ‘objectivity’ is a piece of paper with a series of marks on it – any number of stories may be read from that paper, some with only a passing similarity to others – just as the same story may be read from many series of symbols (this shouldn’t be so radical an idea to you, you who cite Borges as a critical influence). The work of art is entirely subjective – and thus entirely within the authority of the reader and reviewer. What use is there, then, for reviewing? None is vouchsafed, to be sure – what I review may be entirely alien to all other readers. Yet our ability to live together and to read together allows us to assume (some would say compels us to assume) a degree of commonality in our language, a degree of connexion in our responses. For that reason, a reviewer, notwithstanding that they would be wise to speak with caution and where possible largesse of interpretation, may be useful to others, because others may be sufficiently close as to share an interpretation. There are therefore friends of mine whose opinions on art I take most seriously, because I know from experience that their opinions often accord with my own. If they say they liked something, I will likely like it. But here, as always, numbers (or their encoded counterparts in language) are essential – I have little time and many books. He likes ten books – which should I read most urgently? Which should be read if I am in the mood for one type of experience, and which should be read if I am in the mood for another?

We no longer live in an age where media was an empire unto itself, with its own rulers, and its own pretences to authority. The internet is like the waking world, only larger and less limited by the exigencies of time. Here, we do not have to say “what authority do you have?” – because reviewing on the internet is not a zero-sum game. We are not fighting for the only slot on television, or for the limited space in a critical magazine. Here, authority is, as in the real world, based on usefulness. If your opinions on literature match mine (or, more importantly, can be translated into mine in a regular and predictable fashion – you may as well hate what I like, it is just as useful if it is explained and transparent), I will view your reviews as authoritative.

Or, to say the same more swiftly: you say that “virtually all ranking scales are unlikely to be “true” or “fair”.” This is the old Enlightenment error, the correspondentist myth – that there is always such a thing as being ‘true’ or ‘fair’ in our opinions, and it is a sin to fail to meet such aspirations. But what we are evaluating in art is subjective – there is no truth to it, or rather all the truth there is to it is what we, honestly and considerately, find and say there to be, for nobody but ourselves, and nothing but ourselves, not even the world in abstract majesty, has greater authority than ourselves regarding our own opinions – and there is nothing to art but opinion (/perception/experience).

You ask: “For some, this works. But what happens when the classification schema tries to relate what really might be apples and oranges in similarity? For example, if there is a review schema set up that tries to weigh a book in whole or part on its so-called “worldbuilding” (a term I still detest and will continue to place in quotation marks to indicate my distaste for the catch-all term), should such a schema be used to classify a religious document or a memoir?”.  This misunderstands. We are not electing the Pope – we are not looking for an absolute authority, whose word and method in all things is to be obeyed and infallible. We are pragmatic; we are looking for something useful. If a tool is useful in one case, we do not throw it aside because it may not be useful always. We determine our purpose, and find the tools to meet.

In your example: I would not use ‘worldbuilding’ as a criterion of evaluation, because within my purpose there are cases where the criterion would not be greatly useful. I might, for instance, want to review a book set in contemporary London – in which case, ‘worldbuilding’ would be useless. [I am currently, for instance, reading a memoir, and wish to review it shortly]. So, the criterion is not useful to me. But that man next to me – maybe his project is to review fantasy novels only. In that case, the criterion may be useful for him. What is useless to one man may be useful to another, and vice versa.

So, I don’t use ‘worldbuilding’. I use other things. Personally, I try to assess phenomenal impact directly through various phenomenal criteria (such as beauty (the aesthetic reaction), adrenaline (a particular physical reaction), thought-inducing-ness) rather than indirectly through features of the book. I make no judgement about which is best in general – I find mine more useful, but others may disagree. If, for instance, I were reviewing books by friends hoping to be published, perhaps a more technical review of plot and character would be more useful. It would be, as you observe, more limiting – but that just enjoins us to match our tools to our purposes (or vice versa). It says nothing to the value of the tools, or the purposes, themselves.

And I do not deceive myself that my criteria are by any means universal. A religious tract – how would I review that, by my system? My God, you’re right! I couldn’t do justice to such things at all!

Why should I be able to? I have a system by which I have set out to review the artistic value of novels. Am I to be shocked that I cannot review religious texts by this method? Why? I suspect I can’t review peanuts like this, either. Or cathedrals – my system is wholly inappropriate for reviewing cathedrals.

The trick, of course, is to avoid reviewing cathedrals, or, if the necessity is thrust inescapably upon me, to discover or construct some alternative method for so doing. It would be absurd to give Benedict 0/10 for worldbuilding – because it would be absurd to think that Caritas Deo was a fantasy novel! It would be absurd to think a good approach to fantasy novels was going to be appropriate for reviewing religious texts!

A tool that can be used in all cases is not a tool at all; it is merely the illusion of confidence.

This all said, of course, I do like this word ‘mentalité’ that you’ve given us. It appears to mean ‘superiority’. “That’s my mentalité” – “that’s me being better than you”. A less enlightened man might think “your ideas are all completely wrongheaded – I guess you haven’t read the right books, or argued with the best teachers. I wonder if I can convince you?”. With this new concept we can instead say “your ideas are all completely wrongheaded – I guess that’s because I’ve got a different mentalité. Oh well!”, or, to translate from your superior Romance language into the words of us buffoons and Anglish magazine-readers, “I guess that’s because I went to grad school and got taught by really cool guys and have an unblemished apostolic descent from Jorges Luis Borges himself… whereas you suck cock. Yeah, sucks to be you!”.

It certainly should be evident from all the foregoing that I have, as you said, been indoctrinated in my donkey-blowing ways by “mass media”; and in particular such magazines as “Entertainment Weekly” and “Rolling Stone”. How exactly this has happened, I’m not really too sure about, as I’ve never read either magazine. Indeed, I’ve never read any such ‘review’ magazine. I suspect this can all be blamed on the inferiority of Oxbridge and the British grammar school system – that’s probably where the plebeian know-nothings with their damnably accessible and useful views on recommendations infected me. And I have no literature degree at all! Indeed, the whole murky demi-thought of literary theory has quite passed me by, as I only studied Philosophy – so, please, go on educating me about the nature of the subjective and objective!

Because otherwise you can’t blame my disagreement on my differing ‘mentalité’, and may have to accept that other people’s views may well be well-considered and produced through reason and experiment, not mere enculturation and tradition, and thus may have to be addressed on a level playing field, not from the artificial heights of your elevated, educated, ‘mentalité’.

Reaction: Ficciones (2)

The second half of Fictions, entitled Artifices, consists of nine stories, six of them written immediately after The Garden of Forking Paths; the remaining three were not composed for another decade. Although most of the stories were written within three years of those of the first volume, we are promised in the foreword that these stories shall be “less clumsily executed” than those that came before, but that otherwise they will be no different.

Funes, His Memory (better known as Funes the Memorious) is the first of the new stories, and if not less clumsy in execution is certainly a change in style and conception – again, the same semi-philosophical ponderings, but here expressed with more subtlety, and, dare I say it, even with a touch of human emotion, as the story is told through glimpses of a human life, not merely detached narration. The ideas themselves are not that new or interesting, but are given legitimacy by their placement in the human world – we see people caring, and we care accordingly.

The next three stories are closely connected in style – all three draw from a particular mode of writing in which the detective, the spy, the adventurer and the discoverer of ghosts could all equally feature if the author chose – a melodramatic style of puzzles and twists and brightly daubed colours – much the same style that we saw earlier in the outer story of The Garden of Forking Paths itself. The Shape of the Sword is the simplest and most forgettable of the three, being an extremely standard (and, disappointingly, extremely predictable) twist story about Irish conspirators*. Nonetheless, it is well told, though brief. The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero is considerably more clever, although not, I note, beyond the limits of the wilder historical ‘documentaries’ we have inflicted upon us (the plot, with its connexion to the death of Julius Caesar, is only one step beyond what some now suggest is the truth behind Caesar’s murder, however exotic an idea that might seem). Only at the end does the musing hit that certain emotive note of disconcertation and beauty. Unfortunately, Borges tells his story metafictionally – and not even, this time, by reviewing a fictional book as though it were real, but as, self-admittedly, a recitation of a plot that he has thought of. I dislike this idea in Borges that the book is an irrelevance that offers nothing more than can be gained from a few minutes recitation – his plot is a fair enough plot, and if it were in a book, with prose, and characters, and minor things like that, it might be affecting and powerful, but as it is it is only a few pages of a man saying “here’s a great idea I’ve had” – he limits himself to appealing solely on an emotional level, like a magician who does not deign to perform magic tricks, but instead just tells you what you would see if he were to perform the trick. Consequently, the story is flat and unengaging, without even the ironic amusement of the metafictional games he played in Al-Mu’tasim and Herbert Quain.

The third of the trio, Death and the Compass, is the most important of the three, and like The Garden of Forking Paths it combines a melodramatic tale (in this case a detective story with a twist) with musings about labyrinths; this time, however, the two are fully integrated. The balance has been shifted considerably toward the narrative side, with the labyrinths minimised; frankly, I was glad of it. As it is, the musings seem a little detached – almost as though as he neared the end of his story Borges realised that he had to throw in a “Borges-feature” to keep his reputation for labyrinths – but nonetheless engaging, perhaps precisely because they are touched on tangentially, not lectured on as in the earlier story (although, contrariwise, there is less of lasting interest here). The detective part of the story is fair enough, although personally I find the high-irony maximum-melodrama style to be somewhat grating – I’ve seen so many parodies (intentional and unintentional) of that type of murder mystery that the Borgesian pastiche is neither amusing ironically nor enthralling directly. This said, I did like the story overall – it’s short enough that the grating style could be overlooked, and (like Funes) it shows a promising trend to try to integrate his own preoccupations into a matrix of human life.

The Secret Miracle demonstrates this trend perfectly, and is itself a perfect story – and more ambitious than The Library of Babel, in that it combines many preoccupations. It takes the secret labours of Tlön, and the ubiquitous labyrinths, and adds them to yet another metafiction – but this time, the text does not simply stand, frozen, as it is described, but lives and changes – the creative process is addressed, as in Menard (and in the process links the theme of secret labour with the theme of hermeneutics) – and there is the strange, magical or surreal, intrusion of fantasy. But more importantly than all this, it is willing to talk about reality. The setting is real and important (there is a wonderful line about the Nazi need for administration), and the protagonist is genuine, and pathetic, in the sense of the word that denotes our position about him, and not his own qualities. In this story, the two sides of Borges, the wonder and the pondering (one might say, the magic and the science) are brought together and given a context of emotion. For once, I care about what he’s saying.

Three Versions of Judas is another strong story, at least in my view, although it denies all I have praised before – it is a plain metafiction with little emotive content or connexion with reality that concerns itself with semi-philosophical fancies. This time, however, there is something both profound and active about his themes. On the one hand, as in The Secret Miracle, he addresses Nietzschean themes (with clear overtones of Kierkegaard and Wilde), not of impersonal Time and Thought and Meaning, but of life, and death, and renunciation and iniquity; asceticism and glory and their paradox. On the other hand, he remains preoccupied with hermeneutics, but does not simply (as in, for instance, Quain) talk about hermeneutics, saying how different meanings could be construed – this time he shows different meanings being construed. This time, he does hermeneutics. Recall Wittgenstein: philosophy is not a theory but an activity (and Nietzsche, likewise).

The final three stories were written a decade later than those we have discussed, and reading them this is no surprise, as they have a distinct style of their own. Following on from Judas, Borges is now practicing hermeneutics rather than discussing it, and in the same vein he is infusing his stories with greater pathos and tension – he is, in essence, finally telling stories, rather than mentioning them. At the same time, there is a certain loss of clarity here, a loss of audacity. The End is a simple tale; a retelling, I am told, of an episode from a famous Argentine story, with a different ending and a new perspective. As a story, it is well told, but my distance from its cultural resonance makes it to small a story to have my attention. The Cult of the Phoenix is more intriguing – rather than, as Borges often does, starting in an ordinary place and driving into strangeness, it begins in strangeness and returns to mundanity (as, through the gradual recognition of the parent tale, The End presumably does to an Argentine reader). It does this by seeming at first to describe something strange and bizarre, and then to gradually make plain that it is something ordinary and familiar. This is an implementation of his hermeneutic preoccupations – a familiar story is told from an entirely new perspective. Readers of philosophy will be familiar with the technique from Wittgenstein. An additional level is added to the mirroring by the fact that Borges leaves the riddle unsolved – while we may think the answer is clear, it is always possible to consider other solutions. Hence, not only can each story be told in a different way, but each telling can be a telling of more than one story. It should also be said here that although Phoenix is told in much the same sort of discursive style as, say, Lottery, it is clear that his writing ability has increased over the years – I felt genuine tension as the riddle was built up, despite the impersonal and distant nature of the topic. On the other hand, like many intellectual exercises, I was left somewhat cold (in an apathetical, rather than horrified, way) by the ending.

The final story is The South, which Borges believed to be his best. I’m not so sure. The Nietzschean mode is alluring, though the petty thought intrudes that Borges, like Nietzsche himself, seems always inauthentic when regaling us with gauchos and knife fights. That said, there is more pathos in this simple story than in any other in the collection; unfortunately, that’s not saying much. In translation, the story is unspectacular – sufficient, perhaps elegant, but not remarkable or greatly moving. If there is any secondary meaning, as Borges suggests, I failed entirely to divine it, beyond the obvious philosophical/ethical considerations, which have been a continual, if secondary theme in this book (all the way down from the secret labours of Tlön). I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading the story, but I do enjoy reading stories. Somehow, it manages to be human, yet to remain sterile. [A problem, I must confess, I find in almost all short fiction].

Regarding Artifices as a whole, I agree with Borges that it surpasses The Garden of Forking Paths in execution, and in general contains the better stories. At the same time, a degree of vitality and ingenuity is lost in the progression from the earliest stories to the latest – or is that a function of reading too many of these stories consecutively? I think… not entirely – there is little new in the second half for those who have read the first half.

Fictions is certainly a book worth reading if you haven’t read Borges – particularly if you don’t read much philosophy, as Borges is to a degree a populariser of philosophy into a literary context. Some of the stories are brilliant. Pierre Menard, The Library of Babel, and The Secret Miracle should be read by everyone; I would collect these three with Al-Mu’tasim, Funes, Three Versions of Judas, The Cult of the Phoenix and The South for a an excellent collection half the size of this. Even those I didn’t like greatly often had some appeal.

The chief thing on offer in this stories is ideas – from the central gimmicks (and they often feel like gimmicks) of the stories themselves down to incidental remarks that cast common things in a new light. Unfortunately, even those ideas that may have been broadly innovative at time of writing will now feel familiar and worn to the modern reader. Few are explored or explained with any depth or nuance; at his best, Borges shapes his stories into brilliant little gemstones – hard, brittle, small, self-contained, alluring, of little function. Those looking to be intrigued, to be thrown about by unheralded images and interpretations, to be enchanted in, and educed from, labyrinths would be better served reading genuine philosophy. His voice is inventive – perhaps distractingly, hubristically so in places; the prose of the translation has a few great moments, and is continually readable, although exotic – whether this is Borges, or an intention of the translator, or the translator’s ineptitude I cannot say (and I’ve heard all three explanations) – but I had no problem with it. Its excesses tend toward an unusual variance in register, an unusual use of usual words, and a certain degree of archaism and stiltedness – all stylistic techniques I enjoy.

Marks!

Adrenaline: 1/5. Borges does not seem interested in exciting the reader (and in these short, often very short, stories would have little room to build up pace even if he wanted). There are a few stories where my heartbeat rose, particularly in the second half, but not enough to raise this score.

Emotion: 2/5. Some stories had no emotional aspect whatsoever. Many, I should say. Some had glimpses. Some of the later stories did have a genuine element of pathos, which is why this has more than a one, but it would be lying to say that this was not a less-emotional-than-average read.

Thought: 4/5. Too familiar, and too cursory, to score a 5 – and please remember that this is being judged as art, not for its place in the history of art, and so contingent facts of subsequent fashions must be considered where they impact on the reader’s perceptions, even when they are not the fault of the author. This probably would have been a 5 in 1945 or even 1960; it isn’t now.

Beauty: 4/5. Some elegant phrases; some ugly ones. Lifted above average because some of its ideas are themselves beautiful in my opinion.

Craft: 3/5. A strange score for a master, but hard to escape. The prose is not notable – it is only a translation, after all. There is no large-scale construction to praise, because they are (almost entirely) independent short stories. The stories themselves vary greatly in their elegance of form – some are shaped perfectly, others feel unbalanced or over-rough.

Endearingness: 3/5. Intellectually, I find Borges amenable. His voice, I find the voice of a friend or ally (in most cases). Even if some stories evoke no more admiration than a brief bark of laughter, that’s still a reaction that disposes us well toward a book in our opinions. On the other hand, this hasn’t been a book I’ve come back to repeatedly. It has a certain escapist value for its playfulness and shear disregard for normal concerns, but by and large it is too cold, too inhuman, too baroque, to truly warm the heart.

Originality: 4/5. Nobody could say that Borges was only average in originality. That said, I don’t believe it’s a 5. Remember that ‘originality’ here is not a historical fact, but the issue of how easy I feel it would be for me to have written the same stories, or equivalent ones (talent and execution aside) – and I rarely felt stunned by them. I rarely thought ‘I could never have thought of that – how did he?’ Or to put it another way – how unique is this book among others? Unusual, but much of the same ground has been covered in places, even if the style itself has rarely been imitated. The best of the stories – yes. There, a peak of originality is reached. Overall – not really.

Composite Score: 3.00

Overall Score: 5/7. Good

I was expecting a higher score, to be honest, but the stories just don’t have enough power. It should also be noted that this is lowered by the uneven nature of the collection – had I considered only my favourite few stories, they would have unproblematically been Very Good – at least on a par with Leibowitz. I have briefly considered that the excellence within the collection justifies raising the overall score – but this, I think, would be unfair. This score reflects my experience of the book as a whole – and many books have great passages within them. That said, interested readers may find the rumoured presence of great quality within the volume a greater incentive to find it and read it, and so I wanted to make it clear.

*And it’s frustrating, incidentally, that Borges couldn’t pay a little more attention to his setting. He places the action in Connaught in 1922, when the Revolution is fighting for its life against the Black and Tans, who at one point are said to capture a city ‘once and forever’… except, of course, that the Truce came into effect in July 1921, the Treaty was signed in December, and the Black and Tans began their withdrawal in January. By March, the War of Independence was long past, and the Civil War had begun.

Does any of this matter? Not particularly – just read it as 1921 instead. Nonetheless, it irritates. A consistent compliment given to Borges is his immense ‘erudition’, which I find it difficult to be impressed by at the best of times – and a man of famous ‘erudition’ ought to be able to spend thirty seconds looking in a book to research his setting for at least the most egregious errors.

[I’m also extremely sceptical about the role of communism he imagines for their ‘revolution’ that has been destined to be victorious – it rather feels as though he’s just importing Latin American revolutionary modes into the Irish context – but I can let that be]

Reaction: Ficciones (1)

You who read me… are you certain you understand my language?

Although I’ve read far too little of it, magic realism has always appealed to me viscerally; Jorges Luis Borges is, if not a magic realist himself, certainly connected with magic realism. I am, as you’ll have noticed, a world-builder by hobby; Borges is widely regarded as a patron saint of world-building, second only to Tolkien himself. It should be a surprise, then, even given my slovenly attitude to reading, that I didn’t read anything by Borges until I was already at university. I only have one book of his, and this marks only my second read of it. Again, I’m not really sure why, as I know I enjoyed it last time.

Fictions is a collection of short stories, divided into two halves. At present, I only intend to review the first half, The Garden of Forking Paths, but I’m sure I’ll return to the second half later. That I cannot summon the enthusiasm to read the entire collection in one go should not be seen as a criticism of Borges; although I’m willing and able to plough hurriedly through the thickest of multi-volume epics, I encounter a strange repulsion when attempting to read a collection of short fiction. Picking up each story feels like picking up an entire novel for the first time, which for me is a mighty task, however much I expect to enjoy the contents. It’s remarkable I’ve even read this entire collection – probably one of only two short fiction collections of which this is true, though I own many other fine examples I have put down after a particular story with the honest but vain intent to revisit at a later time.

The Garden of Forking Paths contains (at least in this version) eight stories, none of them particularly long. The particular translation I have is one by Andrew Hurley, published in the Penguin Classics series – I assume that this translation is adequate, though the translation issue does of course enjoin us to give the original author a little more charity in our complaints.

The first story is the famous and beloved Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, almost an aquila for the world-building community – a rare story not only by us but about us. Unfortunately, time has not fallen on it kindly, and an early, foundational section about the language of Tlön feels truly painful – the sort of idea that might well have appealed to an early-20th-century European dilettante, but that is as transparently naïve to the modern reader as De Las Casas or Montagne discussing the noble savage. No noble savage here, but an alien, exciting savage. Borges may not be European in geography, but he speaks a European tongue, and this bias is uncomfortably clear in his exoticisation of, and miscomprehension of, what is fundamentally only the mundane sort of native language spoken by many of the pre-European inhabitants of his continent. These are the sorts of (obvious but ultimately nonsensical) linguistic ideas that appear instantly to every Indo-European child who embarks on language-creation, and it’s unsettling to have a master like Borges take on the position of a neophyte. I am perhaps doubly cursed, as I am (have been?) also a philosophy student, as the next development, idealism, neither follows coherently from the linguistic fancy nor is particularly original or engaging – Borges himself makes reference to Schopenhauer and to Berkeley, and unsurprisingly I found that both Berkeley and Schopenhauer presented their ideas more convincingly, and intriguingly, than Borges can. I had a brief moment of delight when I found what looked like an early example of what we might call the Pratchett Principle, that belief shapes reality, only to find it was less creative than that – merely the belief that observation shapes reality*. The idea is put forward appealingly, even strikingly, but cannot hold the attention. The general topic of conworlding is gratifying but, for a conworlder, unexciting; the final twist is unconvincing (and better explored in some of his other stories), and the absolutely-final inversion is brilliant but unexplored. I felt constantly that I should be liking this story, but in fact felt only that a great writer was trying too hard to talk about things he knew too little of.

EDIT: Some days later, the obvious symbolic meaning has finally occured to me, and I am reminded yet again just what an idiot I am. That he should have hidden the meaning of the story in what is, essentially, a bare pun, did not occur to me – I was not even looking for a hidden meaning at all.  What does this change in my opinion? Not as much as it might, for it seems to me that the symbolism is secondary to the discursion – an added barb to the wire. Undoubtedly, it adds a greater degree of pathos, and makes the structure seem better-judged, by casting the ending in a new light. Nonetheless, the symbolised is not really examined in any depth by this story, and none of what is examined is shown in an entirely new light. It improves, but does not rescue, the tale.

The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim is a lighter work, and in style benefits from it – it is all well within Borges’ capabilities. That, frankly, is my complaint – it is no stretch at all. The story is the summary of a book that doesn’t exist, following Borges’ stated project of merely describing books to save himself the bother of writing them – justified by his own nature as ‘a more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man’. In this case, he succeeds in painting the idea of a great novel – a novel I should like to have written myself – but fails to justify this attempt. It is a description of a great novel, but neither the novel nor the description are astounding nor unique – many authors less famous than Borges could have written this just as (or almost as) well. Perhaps this is a personal bitterness speaking here: I find it very easy to narrate to myself, or even to others, the plots and themes of novels I intend to write some day, but rather more difficult to actually write those novels (witness my writing this because my own novel has stalled and I have not yet deduced the proper path through it). Perhaps I should just give up trying to write, and instead try selling summaries as short stories. It has often been remarked that there is no author like Borges – a cynical (and admittedly unfair) explanation might be that no author will ever again be able to get away with writing (or avoiding writing) like Borges. Do not misunderstand me – this was an enjoyable and interesting story. It just wasn’t really worth reading – you may as well listen to your own future novels in your head, or, if you don’t have any, go and read a real review of an actual great novel. There’s plenty of them to choose from without making more. On the other hand, we should remember that perspective influences reading, and remember that this story did not originally appear as a story, but as an essay, posing as a genuine review (so genuine that, the myth runs, one of Borges’ friends tried to buy the book reviewed). I unashamedly remember (read: am reminded by a note in the book, read accidentally while searching for the publication dates I mention below, and return back up here to innocently add this addendum to a paragraph I completed some time ago) this now, and this new perspective has completely changed my opinion of the work – the deceit, or show of deceit, in my opinion justifies what would otherwise be without any great purpose.

If you think I’m being too harsh on Borges, know that I too was disappointed by my reactions. I remember being far more impressed last time – and in Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, we can see why. This story is, in my opinion, genius, and explains why editors let him get away with fluff like the preceding story. It’s easy to think of this as a simple gimmick, but this time Borges actually pursues his ideas, and performs the sort of Copernican moment that he attempted, and in my opinion failed, in Tlön. Pierre Menard ought to be compulsory reading not only in literature classes but also in philosophy – a clearer and more persuasive blow for post-Enlightenment perspectives than a dozen tomes of Derrida (though I acknowledge a risk that a trained Continental philosopher may find the story derivative and barren – even here, however, the early date of the story should be noted).

The Circular Ruins can, like many of these stories, be read as a plain fantasy – a ghost story, I think – or symbolically, with the symbolism of course being debateable. Unfortunately, the tale is slight, and showcases a particular flaw of Borges – these short, scant stories can establish symbolic meanings between two planes of reality, but do not have enough emotional weight to really say anything about either, except in the broadest, most philosophical, least interesting terms. Ruins does not detract from this collection – it’s an interesting enough little read – but nor does it really add much, and is not in itself a reason to read the book, in my opinion.

I have little to say of The Lottery in Babylon – again, Borges seems to try too hard. His established default mode is to take some idea, not too far from the mundane, and follow it into what appears fantastical or absurd, until his descriptions are redolent with the double-natures of dreams and laden with intimations of revelation, and alienation. In Lottery, however, this mode is followed lazily – the pursuit is half-hearted and unconvincing, and the inevitable ‘oooh, isn’t it weeiiiiird’ passages feel un-earned. Rather than eroding the barrier between real and irreal, it feels as though Borges has simply run at the barrier, checked that nobody is looking, and slipped around the side.** Nor is anything in Lottery so striking or exotic as to outshine this poor construction.

Like Al-Mu’tasim (and arguably Menard), A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain is meta-fiction – it describes stories rather than being a story. It is more varied, more exotic, than the earlier story, and hence more immediately approachable – but it is shallower, and less affecting. All the works of Quain described seem to hammer at a single point – which is, essentially, the poststructuralist application of perspectivism to literature. Again and again we are shown (as we are in Menard) that our interpretation of a text depends on our perspective; ‘readers’, as Quain says, are extinct, and we are all ‘writers’ now. Fine; but I am reminded of my reading of Dhalgren, in that I do feel an urge to shout “yes, OK, I know that, but what do you have to say that’s new?”. Come on, Quain! “the aesthetic act must contain some element of surprise, shock, astonishment – and… being astonished by rote is difficult”. Now, we must pause, and check again the date – Menard is from 1939, and Quain from 1941. Truth and Method still lies twenty years in the future; Derrida and post-structuralism, even further. I don’t know enough about the history of (particularly continental) philosophy to say how ground-breaking Borges was at the time, but even if he was not entirely original (and let’s not forget that he was half a century after Nietzsche and Dilthey) he was at least at the forefront of the wave (a difference from Dhalgren, which is a more affective and complex account, but written once the wave had passed). Surely we should credit him for that?

Well, yes, we should – but we should also be careful to look at what we are valuing when we give that credit. If we value that shock, that astonishment, that derives from something new, we are valuing something that is held hostage by the passing of time. This book predicts the wave, and so seems stale, familiar; that book walks out into the water by itself, and stands alone for centuries, a lighthouse that illuminates the shore. These vicissitudes of subsequent fashion have nothing to do with the work itself – or do they? If Quain is right, and we are all writers now, we cannot think of the story as we read it (or, we might say, the story as we rewrite it, renew it) as being identical with the story as a historical artefact, the story as written on that day or night long decades ago, pinned between the pages of an original copy. That copy is meaningless, because it can never be read – we are always reading our own story, because we’ve all read different introductory chapters. If that copy has become damaged, the ink washed away by the leak from a roof, it is no more unreadable. It does not exist ideally in the aether, without a reader, without a context, to be talked about unproblematically through the generations. All we can read is the story as it stands today. So if we give extra credit or demerit for some fact of historical interest (“did you know, when this was first read, the readers had not read anything like it?”), we are not marking this to the account of the story itself, the story as the living, breathing thing with which we interact (by which, we might fancifully suggest, we are temporarily inhabited as by a narrative loa), but as a historical artefact. I think that Herbert Quain expresses it well when he says that “I belong not to art but to the history of art” – and sometimes it does feel that, through no fault of his own, the value of Borges may be relegated to his place in the history of art. No fault of his own? Not so – the more an artist grasps for the present moment, they more vulnerable they are to the new colours cast on them when the light changes with the season – as much when they seek to exceed that moment as when they seek to imitate it. By putting such emphasis on ideas, Borges helps us to devalue his work in its role as art, as nothing is more dustily historical than an old idea. Whether Borges would be displeased by this is hard to say – Quain himself both rejects the fate (by regarding history as the lowest of subjects) and accepts it (by intentionally seeking the new and the shocking, inescapably trapping himself in his moment) – and given that Borges credits one of his own stories to Quain it is tempting to see one as the eidolon of the other. Frankly, I don’t much care either way – all I can talk about is my own view, and I would think it sad (though not dishonourable) if Borges were to be consigned entirely to history.

Of The Library of Babel… I have very little to say. It stands with Tlön and Lottery as another journey-of-a-thought fantasy. Unlike those stories, its concept and construction are genius, and beautiful too – at once a wholly fantastical thought-experiment and a soft symbology of human beauty and folly. I don’t think it could be improved.

Finally, there is the story of The Garden of Forking Paths itself, which represents something of a change in tone from the rest of the collection – as it features an actual character. Two stories are combined in one – a simple but effective puzzle-story about a spy, and a long discursion into the nature of time. The former is truly pleasing, though its conclusion is rushed and simplistic; the latter feels sadly familiar from the intersection of Library and Quain – the collection would have benefited from putting this story before those, I think. The combination itself, the twist, is audacious and surprisingly pleasing, given how easy it would have been for such an authorial conceit to be obnoxious.

Regarding the demi-collection as a whole – I have made note of my own scores for it, but I shall wait until I have finished the second half, when I’ll give my over-all view of the collection.

 

EDIT: second half of the review up here

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*A suggestion: the Pratchett Principle is a cargo-cult extension of Protagoras’ belief that all beliefs are true. From this, we leap, with the addition of causality, to the idea that things are true because they are believed, and that if they were not believed they would not be true – and we have the world of Discworld (and many others). Borges, on the other hand, chooses to extend Berkeley, which is less impressive as it has been mostly done by Berkeley already. Tlön, we might say, is merely Berkeley’s world without his god – an interesting thought, but one only hinted at by Borges.

**I’m reminded of beautiful description (by Nagel, iirc?) of our attempts to deal with scepticism. He divided the approaches into the heroic, the tragic, and the oblivious. We stand and observe our destination, kept from us by a gigantic chasm. The tragic philosopher walks to the edge and weeps that he cannot cross; the heroic philosopher takes a great long run-up and leaps out across, and into, the abyss, to his doom; the oblivious philosopher walks with determination to the edge, turns to put the chasm at his back, and declares to those who watch him that he has succeeded, and is now on the other side – the writer suggests the infamous example of Moore’s hands for this last category. I think perhaps something could be said of the delimning of the real: realists dig a chasm; magic realists try to fill it in again; Borges at his best builds the sort of solid, slender bridge that gets us to the other side but fills us with vertigo in the process; but at his worst, he sometimes seems to simply come to the chasm and turn his back.