Que Nadie Se Entere, by Alejandro Dolina

Let no one find out that love has reached you.
Let no one suspect that your heart is drifting
in a fog of its own restlessness
in constellations of despair.

Allow not a soul to console you,
for there is no comfort for this grief.
Allow not a stranger to defile your sorrow;
a love that remains hidden will grow in solitude.

Refuse to wait for the cold hand of oblivion,
or the faithless miracle of some other love.
That first heartbeat will return a thousand times
and recreate your world of secret pain.

And when the years have shed the leaves
of all the rose trees of your youth,
there will grow, in silence, unbeknownst to all,
one final kiss in your lightless night.

Shooting stars of all your dreams,
in a dark sky with not a dawn in sight.
All our loves are a liar’s memories,
blurred recollections of a false yesterday.

Offers that were never oaths,
promises that no one ever heard.
The sorrows of a harbor
boatless, sealess.

(translated by me)

On Reconnecting

On December of last year, someone left a comment on this blog, which I had left abandoned for quite a few years, saying that they hope I’m alive and well, and that Borges was not relegated to my past. Though certainly not the commenter’s intention, I couldn’t help but feel accused in a way, because that was exactly what happened.

Slowly and throughout the years, literature started to walk out on me, or rather, something started to grow between me and literature, some unknown obstacle that I have taken to call depression, for lack of a better word. For a long time, I have felt that I don’t belong anywhere, not even in the mental spaces I used to occupy.

Bachelard once wrote that the things we remember, as well as the things we forget, reside in our subconscious, that the subconscious is a space for things to dwell in, and by remembering the rooms and houses of our past, we are learning how to dwell within ourselves.

Freud wrote about the idea of not feeling at home. He describes the feeling of seeing something that should seem familiar to us, but something about it, something that perhaps one can’t point it, is odd, unfamiliar, and even sinister, which affects our perception of the something as a whole. That something ceases to be familiar, and we cannot be at ease with it any longer.

Sometimes, when rereading a piece I wrote a long time ago, I have a hard time assimilating the fact that I was the one who wrote it. I am only the author of that piece insofar as they and I both have the same ID, the same name, and the same birth certificate. But I am like a kettle so consumed by rust that the metal has wasted away, leaving nothing but the brittle form that was once a kettle, made entirely of rust.

There is no way for me to reside in literature if I can’t even reside in myself. I haven’t forgotten any of the things I’ve read throughout my life, but the empty rooms inside my head are growing, and the hollow noise of their silence drowns out everything else. Literature, the thing I chose to be defined by, is walled off from me now. I don’t know who I am anymore.

But let me tell you a story. A man in his mid 30s, healthy, friendly. He’s taking out the trash one night when he slips on some wet grass and hits his temple on the sidewalk. He gets up immediately, a little rattled but otherwise unscathed. He walks back into his house and starts feeling dizzy, he loses his balance. He tries to call out to his wife, but he can’t remember her name. Later that night he is rushed to the hospital, where he stays for a few days. They tell him he suffered a concussion, but there will be no long term effects. He should take it easy for the next week or so, and so he does.

Not too long after this incident, his mind seems to shift, perhaps without his immediate knowledge. He notices things around his house that look odd, as if they didn’t belong there, as if someone had just sneaked into his house and placed these small inconsistencies. He finds a stapler in a drawer and thinks to himself that he never had a stapler. His wife’s eyeglass case is black when it used to be a greyish blue. A spot on a wooden table that shows what looks like a dog’s face wasn’t there before. He ignores all of this, or rather, I should say, he avoids mentioning it, to his wife and to himself.

One day he is walking to the grocery store and notices a butcher shop near his house that used to be three blocks farther away. The office he works at is now located on a fourth floor, when it used to be on the third. His father in law’s name is now Victor.

Despite these violent changes, he says nothing. In fact, he is noticeably more quiet than he used to be, before the concussion. But something in his mind is relentlessly pressuring him, as if some creature that awoke from the very bottom of his brain was eating its way out, leaving only the surface of this man’s thoughts intact. A sudden memory screamed at him

when does a house stop being a house? how much damage can the walls receive before we can no longer call it our home?

He takes to walking. He walks until the sun goes down and the streets have names of people he’d never heard of before, but it could be that he had heard them before, in the still recent past.

One day, as he is walking, he comes to the realization that the street he was standing on was unnaturally long. He finally reaches and turns the corner, and the same unreal street extends itself before him. Once he finally finishes walking around the entire block, he notices that there were no doors, gates or windows in this block, only a tall, perfectly white wall.

Jumping over the fence, he lands on a large bush. Looking around, he sees nothing but vegetation all around him, weeds as tall as himself, trees he couldn’t identify, and in the distance, placed irregularly and forming no clear pattern, are six slender obelisks. He walks toward them with the determination of someone in a dream, and as he gets near he trips on something hard, and stumbles to the ground. He gets up but immediately falls back to his knees and begins pulling the weeds and grass aside and underneath the old shrubs he discovers a black marble headstone. Reeling back from this, he gets back on his feet and turns to face the obelisks. At the base of these six structures there lay a pile of broken coffins and body bags.

As he approaches this foul mound, he starts reading the dates on the bags. Some of them had been sitting there for years, but some had more recent dates; one in particular seemed to have been dumped there just a few weeks before.

The man turns around and runs away from the bags and the obelisks, and continues to stumble upon graves and tombstones almost completely covered in vegetation, one next to the other, and as he runs looking for some kind of exit, he stops for a moment to breathe.

Things I’ve seen this year, reviewed

I saw a big fat pigeon sitting in my backyard yesterday, it looked old. When I told my dad, he said “yeah, she comes here every afternoon”

I saw a laundromat downtown but it was closed. The window had a washing machine painted on it from the inside, it looked cool because it was an old model painted.

I saw a painting at my therapist’s office depicting a bullfighter about to finish off the bull. I suspected it was Picasso and after I googled it, I realized I was right.

I saw another pigeon waiting for me to give it a piece of croissant while I was having some coffee outside. After I threw a piece of croissant on the ground, it ate it, then flew to a balcony and must have made some sort of signal to a few other pigeons there because they all came to me and waited for more croissant. But I had no more croissant.

I saw a picture of John Kerry holding a cane and looking at a bunch of donuts. Sadly, I had already seen it, a couple of years ago.

I saw a comment someone left on this blog 5 months ago, wishing that I’m alive and well and that my love for literature has not been relegated as part of my past. This made me very sad.

I saw the movie Fire in the Sky. I thought it was very clever when they showed that the typical “grey alien” archetype is actually spacesuits and that’s why the face lacks any features.

I saw a video of a Rottweiler eating some cheese and then shaking its head when the owner offered a piece of broccoli. The title was something like “Rottweiler does not like vegetables”. I showed it to my parents and they thought it was the funniest thing they ever saw. They both love Rottweilers.

I saw a screenshot of a space flight simulator I often play and it made me realize that I haven’t seen a star in the sky since I was a kid.

That’s about it, I guess.

Thomas Pynchon, V.

“Profane wandered up by Rachel’s cabin again. He heard splashing and gurgling from the courtyard in back and walked around to investigate. There she was washing her car. In the middle of the night yet. Moreover, she was talking to it.

“You beautiful stud,” he heard her say, “I love to touch you.” Wha, he thought. “Do you know what I feel when we’re out on the road? Alone, just us?” She was running the sponge caressingly over its front bumper. “Your funny responses, darling, that I know so well. The way your brakes pull a little to the left, the way you start to shudder around 5000 rpm when you’re excited. And you burn oil when you’re mad at me, don’t you? I know.” There was none of your madness in her voice; it might have been a schoolgirl’s game, though still, he admitted, quaint. “We’ll always be together,” running a chamois over the hood, “and you needn’t worry about that black Buick we passed on the road today. Ugh: fat, greasy Mafia car. I expected to see a body come flying out the back door, didn’t you? Besides, you’re so angular and proper-English and tweedy – and oh so Ivy that I couldn’t ever leave you, dear.” It occurred to Profane that he might vomit. Public displays of sentiment often affected him this way. She had climbed in the car and now lay hack in the driver’s seat, her throat open to the summer constellations. He was about to approach her when he saw her left hand snake out all pale to fondle the gearshift. He watched and noticed how she was touching it. Having just been with Wedge he got the connection. He didn’t want to see any more. He ambled away over a hill and into the woods and when he got back to the Trocadero he couldn’t have said exactly where he’d been walking. All the cabins were dark. The front office was still open. The clerk had stepped out. Profane rooted around in desk drawers till he found a box of thumbtacks. He returned to the cabins and till three in the morning he moved along the starlit aisles between them, tacking up one of Wedge’s contraceptives on each door. No one interrupted him. He felt like the Angel of Death, marking the doors of tomorrow’s victims in blood. The purpose of a mezuzah was to fake the Angel out so he’d pass by. On these hundred or so cabins Profane didn’t see mezuzah one. So much the worse.

After the summer, then, there’d been letters his surly and full of wrong words, hers by turns witty, desperate, passionate. A year later she’d graduated from Bennington and come to New York to work as a receptionist in an employment agency, and so he’d seen her in New York, once or twice, when he passed through; and though they only thought about one another at random, though her yo-yo hand was usually busy at other things, now and again would come the invisible, umbilical tug, like tonight mnemonic, arousing, and he would wonder how much his own man he was.”

The Borges Machine

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Following Raymond Lull’s plans and sketches, he devised a crude mechanism which would produce texts similar to that of his favorite and most hated writer, Jorge Luis Borges.

He began by carefully feeding pages from El Aleph to the machine; at first, the only results were worthless scribbles and something just below glossolalia. But he kept trying, he would spend days and days adjusting the wheels and choosing the best pages from Borges’ books (he owned his complete works, from stories to screenplays to prologues to film criticism to love letters), until some hesitant experiments came out. A short sketch brimming with naivette about a young man being initiated in the “art” of knife-fighting; a long rambling (but polite) diatribe against Latin American surrealists. The machine was learning.

He was pleased and a little scared when the machine started writing stories that Borges had come up with but never wrote (the plot he summarized “as a gift to his readers” about a society where young men conspire to murder the elderly, the gospel according to Judas, a narrative poem about Plato meeting Socrates in Heaven and being assured that his Forms do not exist, only the individuals). One afternoon, he chose some non-Borges books and fed them to the circular artifact; it produced a translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. He was startled; that translation was Borges’ first literary work.

His creation was obviously learning quickly; he felt as if he was standing before a lifeless reincarnation of the nemesis he owed everything to. He questioned his lack of faith, and briefly considered the idea of both the immortality of the soul and demonic possession.

Then, the inevitable (or at least, what he considered inevitable as soon as he saw it) happened: the machine, one night and without prompting, slowly spewed forth a manuscript of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. He held the pages—still warm—in his hands and came to the conclusion that the machine was mocking him. He ran back to his bedroom and spent all night filled with horror. He remembered Borges’ own poem, The Golem, about a rabbi who gives life to a creature made of clay, and with compassion and pity he voices his regret at having made this poor abomination, this new symbol in the infinite series of cause and effect and sorrow and pain.

When he finally went to his studio he saw that the machine had something new for him. Pages and pages: monotone descriptions of a place where there are no lights, where the narrator can only hear the laments of those around him, and the chains around his arms and legs, constantly tugged at by other men who are bound together, blind and suffering “until the day of reckoning comes, if it ever does.”

He wouldn’t accept what this implied. That very day he dismantled the machine.

 

The Horrible Existential Dread of NPCs and Skyboxes

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about video games as a medium. But I’ve also been thinking about this Brian Eno quote I read recently:

Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.

(thanks to wordless-stanza for sharing that quote)

I’ve known for a long time that limitations help to define. The strict rules of the sonnet give shape to the sonnet; the malfunctioning shark in Jaws became more menacing than originally intended when Spielberg was forced to give it less screen time. I was always interested in stories about failure, disastrous and hilarious failures, problems, unforeseen consequences, remnants, leftovers, answers that answer a question I never heard.

And glitches. I’m fascinated by glitches, especially those that cause programs to act in ways that seem to transcend their own boundaries. When you make Microsoft Sam warble glossolalia like a possessed man, or when Google Street View makes giant ghostly figures appear in the sky–that kind of thing. A glitch in Donkey Kong Country has the power not only to ruin your game, but it can also damage the cartridge itself. A glitch in the old NES collection Action 41 will make the music on one specific game get garbled, and if you trigger the glitch, the music will stay like that forever, even after resetting the console.

I’m more interested in these malfunctions than in video games themselves. I will play a game only to cause glitches, and get bored after seeing them. I also tend to see real life in video game terms, when it should be the opposite–the game should mirror real life, to a lesser or greater extent. But the interactive nature of games seems to have retroactively affected reality in certain ways.

In downtown Buenos Aires (as in many other big cities around the globe) there are a few subways stations that were never completed. Due to the nature of underground structures, there’s no real way to get rid of them, so they just closed down all the entrances and left not a trace of working machinery. Right under your feet there is a hollowed out artifact, modern ruins that no one acknowledges–or almost no one. A few years ago, a friend and I decided, one cold and boring night, to sneak into one of these stations. We saw a staircase leading down into pitch-black darkness–it should have been fenced off, but someone had taken a pair of pliers to the fence. I won’t describe what I saw, but suffice it to say, that hollow dark place wasn’t uninhabited.

The closest analogy that comes to mind when I think about that short expedition is, to me, sewer levels in first person shooters, basements in survival horror games, or–more than anything–dungeons in RPGs.

And much like those types of levels, that old subway station was severely limited. There were dead ends, stairs that led nowhere, empty rooms that serve no apparent purpose, long stretches of nothing, pure hallways, dark and dusty, filled with debris and tiny animals. The entire place had an uncanny feeling to it–it failed to achieve its intended purpose. Teeming masses of people should have been there, blinded by the bright white lights and deafened by the roaring engines of subways. In an empty hall that should be comfortably inhabited, echoes of our voices and motions mock our very presence in the hollow space.

Pretty much every video game has doors that aren’t really doors, because there’s nothing on the other side and cannot be opened. This can be horrifying, if the game is immersive enough. Imagine moving into a new apartment and finding a door behind a wardrobe that cannot be opened, a door that if opened doesn’t even lead to a brick wall, but to nothingness. This reminds me of a few lines from Borges’ poem, Cambridge:

Like in a dream,
there is nothing behind the tall doors.

Some old sport games gave you the option to zoom in and out of the stadium. But because of hardware limitations, sometimes if you zoomed too far out, you would notice that the stadium–along with the players and the crowd–are floating in a black void, from which there is no escape. As if the players were forced to run around that court forever, and the crowds were being forced to cheer and stare at this, infinitely glued to their seats.

At one point in Half-Life, you are running away from a marine squad that was sent to hunt you down, and you are forced to escape into an air vent. If you keep crawling around, you will eventually see two soldiers through one of the grates, who are conveniently talking about you (plot exposition doesn’t have to be subtle). Now, if you load up a save during conversations, the NPCs dialogues are not loaded. What this means is that, if you load up a save during their conversation, you will just see them staring at each other in silence. And they never move. You could stay there looking at them for hours and they won’t move a pixel. After a while, their silent presence starts to bother you, and there’s nothing for you to do but just keep going. What’s interesting is that this problem with the game doesn’t really ruin the immersion–it just makes it creepier. That’s the thing about most glitches. You are rarely taken out of the game’s universe, you plunge into the uncomfortable depths of the true reality within the game’s code. Seeing a ghost will not make you stop believing in your everyday reality, it will just make it weirder and more interesting, and scary. There’s no reason to stop playing, just as there is no reason to stop living.

In Half-Life’s sequel Opposing Force, you play as Adrian Shephard, one of the soldiers that are hunting you down in the original game. There’s an odd depressing mood to it, especially when you meet with your fellow squad members, people who now have voices and personalities, as opposed to the original game, where they were just targets for you to kill. Everyone is just as equally confused.

But that’s a given. There’s a bug in the game that triggers sometimes for no reason in one specific area. You have to push a trolley down a platform so you can hop into a train car, which will then activate and take you to the next area. If the bug triggers, the train car doesn’t move at all, and the door won’t open again. You’re trapped inside with no way of getting out. The music doesn’t play during this section. There are no other characters. Not even enemies. Below you there is complete darkness. This is the place where you will stay, forever. You can create a new game and hope the bug doesn’t happen again, but the Shephard from your previous game will still be there if you saved–and the game autosaves.

Something similar happens in some third person shooters: your character can glitch through the floor itself, and fall into the void below the stage, and there will be no way to get back up. You’re trapped under the world and there is nothing you can do.

Overuse of examples aside, I must say I adore all of this. It’s nice to think of mistakes this way. When you create something, you run the risk of leaving one or two parts unfinished, and when you’re done, other people will wander in, and they will look at them, study them, think about them, and in that thinking, those mistakes will not only be reshaped, but they will also reveal a lot about what you were trying to do. It’s the mistake that reveals who you are.

y la reina dio a luz un hijo que se llamó asterión

He was docile, unlike anything else that comes from the sea, but no one doubted the story of how one evening the king was standing on the beach when the great bull emerged from the waves, wreathed in foam. His skin of pure white, his pink eyes, his grey hooves, his ivory horns, his whiteness produced a disturbing sense of peace in them. After months of seclusion at the palace, where no one but the king and queen could see him, they were finally taking him to the sacrificial altar.

The queen ordered a carriage, but all they could find to fit him was a large silver cage where there lived the king’s favorite slaves. The slaves themselves were the ones in charge of hoisting the cage into a large wheeled cart, and they themselves had to drag this newly made carriage from the palace to the sea. One of the slaves was crushed by the cage during the first attempt at lifting it, and the blood and the insides that had burst out of her mouth made the bull whimper and retreat into the farthest corner, as far away from that ruined woman. The queen ran up to him, and through the golden bars caressed his horn gently, just the way he liked it. The queen told him to hush.

Then they set out, a great caravan of hundreds, marching down the narrow streets around the palace, while more and more people kept joining them, storming out of their homes to follow the fabled bull, who was leaving, they were taking him away, and I saw a child with whole blue for eyes, staring at me as his mother carried him on her shoulder and I wondered in what color he saw the bull. A proper carriage rolled ahead of the cage, where the king and queen sat, and behind them, staring straight into the cage, was a painter the queen had hired to give her a portrait of the bull. He would’ve prefered to see the bull in motion, he wanted to see the blood pumping madly, the sweat steaming off his hide, the muscles contorting and pulsating, but this, he knew, was not a bull for such action. He focused on his face, his serene and almost human-like face. He had a hard time looking into his eyes. The bull seemed at peace with himself, and at the same time the painter felt that he knew they were going to offer his blood to the gods. An animal should not be so willing to die, he thought. Hard to sketch a white bull. He rehearsed one bull, then another, a third, until the tenth bull looked somewhat right. He would give all ten sketches to the queen, he thought strangely. She would look back at the painter from time to time, or so he assumed.

As the city streets gave way to dirt roads, they realized the caravan had expanded monstrously. Thousands of people, the entire city abandoned, left in charge of who knows who, all to see the bull with the kind face. Soldiers tried to keep the people away, knowing the bull would be scared by such a crowd around the cage, blocking out the light, feeling hemmed in. Towards noon they stopped to rest. The followers at the very end of that long dragon’s tail that was the caravan didn’t know why the ones on the front had stopped, they sent mini-caravans within the larger caravan to investigate, they were worried that something might have happened to the bull. The mini-caravan was taking too long to come back, not because of any problem, not because they were slow, but because the caravan itself was so large, so vast and populous, that moving a few meters was an almost cyclopean task, not to mention the natural anxiety of the people who waited at the back, waiting for news of the bull, the natural anxiety of someone who fears for their loved ones. They began to set out, all of a sudden they wanted to see the bull themselves, and no one wanted to be at the end of the caravan. Everyone started to rush to the front, not realizing that several kilometers separated them from the golden cage, that they were effecting what one could call a human avalanche, a wave of flesh where the one being pushed by someone behind them being pushed and so on feels the need to push the one ahead of them, and the one ahead of them needs to push the one ahead, and so on until the friction creates heat, and heat becomes fire at the first spark.

Fortunately, the avalanche was cut short by something unforeseen; an elephant that had just escaped a nearby circus blazed her way through the caravan, cutting through it and stomping on a dozen people. One of the soldiers handed a few shovels to the pilgrims and told them to dig. Not wanting to be left behind, everyone kept marching while a few diggers would take care of the graves for a few minutes, then hand the shovel to someone else who was walking past, and these would do the same, and so on until the graves, by a kind of anxious collaboration, were ready for the minced meat that was once gentlemen and ladies. And speaking of minced meat, it was around this time that everyone realized they were hungry. Driven by the desire to see the bull, they had forgotten to bring any food. And now, driven not by a desire but by an unquestionable need, they set out across the fields in search for anything that would relieve their stomachs. A group of pilgrims saw a horse in the distance and carefully approached him, this mere horse, not white, nor a gift from Poseidon, a simple horse fresh and tasty, still raw, still alive, but as the serpent’s egg contains the threat of death, this horse’s flesh already called to them, its firm flesh inviting them, saying kill me, I’m yours, you gave me these weeds of miserable flesh, please strip them off from me again. With clubs and knives the people nourished their fevered hunger.

Speaking of inviting flesh, it’s time to head back to the front of the caravan, where the queen had seemed to lose her mind. She was clawing at the bars of the bull’s cage, demanding to be let in, to comfort her bull one last time, though it was clear to everyone around that the bull seemed perfectly fine, not a bead of sweat on his perfect brow. The king called for his two favorite bodyguards, and they eventually managed to pasiphy her. They were near the sea now, not too near, but at their pace, slowed down by the great plumed serpent that marched behind them, the king thought they would get there before nightfall, around the time he’d first seen the bull emerge from the water, defiant, scared, defiant because he was scared.

But now it came to pass that some men who had slowly gotten ahead and near the cage began to exclaim in loud voices that the bull was not to die. Why gives this bull to the gods when it was the gods themselves who gave him to us, it is ours now, this bull is our blessing and I tell you that if we allow this bull to die, if we dare break that immaculate skin, a shower of pestilence will rain on us, brought down by Apollo himself. The rotten counselors of the king know nothing. What savages are we to kill an innocent bull, as if we could simply murder one of our loved ones, our father, our mother, our lover. And the queen rose up and began to howl and shriek. The soldiers, who didn’t know where these sounds came from, took it as a sign from the gods and ran towards the rebels who, armed with clubs and arrows, were ready for a fight before the sacred bull. The men from the front wielded their clubs, and the ones behind them in line had their bows ready when the king’s soldiers opened fire, the bullets tearing them apart, the continuous racket of machine-guns hiding the queens incessant screaming, the bull crying like a human child. The bodies lay on the floor and the people behind that red line didn’t dare cross it. Thousands of men and women stopped dead in their tracks, some staring at the soldiers’ weapons, others looking at the bull, for the first time in his life there were people looking at him with spite, with disdain, with hatred. This idiot child now crying in his golden prison had caused the death of fathers, of sons, of human beings who fought for him. The queen was now silent, gently convulsing in her seat. The slaves who had stopped and were able to rest, while feeling the need to look sad and grieved, but beaming inside their spirits, thinking of that bestial cunt screaming and crying next to her cuckold king, and the king’s virulent cock that spilled forth scorpions and spiders, they were the only ones who knew about the queen and her bull, the privileged slaves in the golden cage that now belonged to this white abhorrence.

And with a heart full of grief, the king ordered the caravan to drive on, to the beach, where he would offer the sacred bull to the gods.

Partial Review of Alan Pauls’ El Factor Borges

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I will write a proper review once I’m finished, but for now I want to remark on what seems to be the main theme of this essay-book, both the main street and the alleys, the corpus and the asides. I hate to think that this blog will turn into nothing but a long series of posts about Borges, but for now you’ll have to trust me that I actually read other authors. Also, there’s no human being I know more about than Borges, so I’ll focus on him for a while.

– – –

(Growing up in a Latin American country, I have developed this Pavlovian instinct of looking down at the subtitles in movies, even when I can perfectly understand what is being said. It’s not voluntary anymore, the eyes just dart downward. This happens with literature as well; it’s hard to read my copy of Doctor Faustus without stopping on each little circle next to, for example, the word want. Like this:

Then tell me, Faustus, what shall we three want°?

This book has many parenthetical comments and footnotes, but they’re arranged in this almost houseofleafy way that makes it less bothersome.)

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– – –

The intention of this book, as Pauls writes in the preface, is to search for that or those factors that have marked our perception of Borges, not only found in the careful study of his literature, but on his circumstances, his mannerisms, his voice, and the way they all tie into his literature, not in a psychological way, but in the same literary sense with which one would build a character. And it was Borges himself the one who began crafting himself as a character, before every scandalous or poignant biography, before every roman à clef (Luis Pereda in Adan Buenosayres, Jorge de Burgos in The Name of the Rose, the blind Zampanò in House of Leaves). Each interview with Borges begins with biographical details, they ask where he was born; his answer is always a variation of, “I grew up in Palermo, but in reality I grew up in my father’s library, reading Don Quixote, Stevenson, The Thousand and One Nights”, etc. This constant repetition of intimate confessions was, I think, a way he had of avoiding intimate confessions, hand over poignant breadcrumbs to the interviewers in order to appease them. He wrote a short piece in El Hacedor, addressing this dichotomy:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

Several years later, he wrote a poem, a truly confessional poem, whose confession can be found not on the surface but on the general sentiment of the poem, called Fame. I will perpetrate a translation:

To have seen Buenos Aires growing up, grow up and decline.
To remember the dusty courtyard and the vines, the sidestreets and the well.
To have inherited English, to have interrogated the old Saxon.
To profess a love for German and the nostalgia of Latin.
To have conversed in Palermo with an old murderer.
To thank chess and jasmines, tigers and hexameters.
To read Macedonio Fernandez with his voice.
To know the illustrious uncertainties of metaphysics.
To have honored swords and reasonably yearn for peace.
To not be greedy of islands.
To never have escaped my library.
To be Alonso Quijano without daring to be Don Quixote.
To have taught what I do not know to those who will know more than I do.
To thank the gifts of the moon and Paul Verlaine.
To have crafted some hendecasyllabic verse.
To have retold some ancient stories.
To have ordered in the dialect of our times the five or six eternal metaphors.
To have eluded bribery.
To be a citizen of Geneva, of Montevideo, of Austin and (like all men) of Rome.
To be an enthusiast of Conrad.
To be that thing no one can define: an Argentinian.
To be blind.
None of these things are strange and their combination gives me a fame that I will never truly understand.

– – –

One of these verses stands out: “To have honored swords and reasonably yearn for peace.” Here, Alan Pauls finds something of a decoder.

Borges’ family tree is divided in two contrasting patterns: on one side, the military part of his lineage, and on the other, the literary. His grandmother, Frances Haslam, a devout reader of Dickens and the Bible, married colonel Francisco Borges. His great-grandfather, Isidoro Suarez, was a captain of infantry; his great-granduncle, Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur, was one of the first Argentinian poets. His father, Francisco Borges, was a poet, a translator, and a philosopher. When he was a child, it was tacitly understood by the whole family that Borges would inherit the destiny of his father (from whom he also inherited his blindness), and he accepted this destiny the way children accept everything they are told.

– – –

Yet, in the literature of Borges, one often runs into a vein of yearning for that other destiny, the military one. His collections of poetry are replete with verses that sing the resigned labor of a poet who dreams of swords and glory. Yet, what Pauls tries to point out several times is the fact that Borges, in a way, managed to seize that second destiny and make it his. In another late poem, Borges writes: “Only what we have lost can be ours […] there are no paradises but lost paradises.” Borges, by lamenting the loss of his military destiny, makes it his, and transforms it into what he knows, into literature. Borges saw his Buenos Aires grow, he saw the outskirts turn into a city, and thus by singing–in his first poetry collections–these fading sidestreets and dirtroads, he is reclaiming them.

– – –

(On yearning for what’s lost, on the desire for that which is veiled from us: my own prose always tries to be as clear as possible. I never try to unnecessarily enlarge or engorge a paragraph, always with the guilt inherited by a Catholic upbringing, the guilt I feel when I make someone read a piece of text I wrote; terrified that I will bore you, I will do my best to concentrate my writing and purging it of superfluities, knowing full well that this is not a necessarily accurate measure of quality, and also knowing full well that what I want is the opposite, I want to lose myself in my own paragraphs, I want to spin a tangle, I want to be Cervantes or Saramago, I want to throw myself into a swirling raging ocean, not caring if I make it out unharmed or even alive; my own self prohibits me from writing a novel, therefore I will resign myself to these miniatures)

– – –

Hey, listen. Another point Pauls makes is that, contrary to the idea most people have of Borges, of this ivory tower type writer whose metaphysical wanderings are wholly separate from life, from the dirt and the stench of real life, his fictions and his essays are brimming with conflict, with life and death. Emma Zunz avenges her father; The Theologians are locked in a perpetual struggle whose field is not a battlefield but religion; Dahlmann, in The South, abandons in a fever dream his literary ambitions and (perhaps) dies in a knifefight; and many more examples found in his fiction. In his essays, one can find the polemist Borges, the radical classicist, the reader who, in times of modernism, in times of Joyce and Proust, in times of new techniques, decides to favor and praise those writers whose main characteristic is narrative, not technical–Stevenson, Chesterton, Wells, Kipling. He was constantly having literary feuds; Leopoldo Lugones, as Pauls recalls, who during the first half of the 20th century was considered the undoubted master of Argentinian poetry, once even challenged Borges to a duel (he backed down after his friends told him that, due to Borges’ blindness, this duel would be more akin to murder); in an essay, he has no problem calling Christianity “one of the many offspring sects of Judaism”; a nationalist newspaper once denounced Borges for having Jewish blood; he responded by giving an extensive review of his family tree, and them lamenting the fact that didn’t have any Jewish ancestors. Borges may have chosen a literary destiny, but he never neglected the warrior inside his frail body. This is one of the main ideas expressed by Pauls in this book.

– – –

Only what we have lost can be ours.

– – –

°Want lack.

On Inspiration and Inspired Writers vs. Methodical Writers

You can separate writers into several categories, often capriciously.  What I want to delineate now is the difference between those authors whose main superstition is the muse, and those whose main superstition is hard work.

In Nabokov’s biography of Gogol, he quotes a letter Gogol once wrote, advising a friend against the lies of inspiration; Gogol said that one should be very careful of the things one writes under the influence of a sudden inspiration. Pages that are written under the frenzy of the night will seem mediocre in the morning and indeed, sometimes you write something that you think is good, but what happens is that you don’t really like the text itself, but the memory of writing it, or even worse, how the text relates to you–this last point has no consequences when writing, say, a journal, but in fiction, in literature, this inward gazing will solipsize the reader.

The feelings aroused by a text must be autonomous, and one should not have to know that this or that author had just been cuckolded by his wife the previous night he wrote this or that poem. One falls in love with a wild and beautiful brunette and writes a poem to her; the boy or girl who writes this poem runs the risk of confusing the ardent passion they pour into the page with actual quality. Gogol then suggests a certain sobriety when writing, a sobriety from the very beginning, as opposed to Hemingway’s halfway “Write drunk, edit sober” or Stephen King’s “I’m not saying coke will help you write better, but yeah, it kind of does” (I’m paraphrasing). According to the author of Taras Bulba, writers should limit themselves and write at least 10 pages a day; this was a big number to him, and to me as well. I can fit all of my Tumblr blog’s writings in ten pages.

But one cannot deny the charm of inspiration, the whirlwind, as Virginia Woolf said to describe Dostoyevsky. “I love everything that flows,” wrote Henry Miller, “rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences […] I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul.”

He was obviously talking about himself. Henry Miller is the prime example of a writer by inspiration. Reading his most famous novels, from the Tropics to the Rosy Crucifixion, you find these great bursting bubbles of language that explode in your face and all you can do is blink in shock and lick it all up. But these paroxysms of words are usually accompanied by a sort of loosening, like coming down after taking speed. You can almost feel Miller’s following paragraphs becoming worn and empty, like an office clerk returning to work after the weekend. Reading a novel, you often have to wade through swamps in order to reach a beautiful city; in Miller’s case, this is accentuated to such an extent that it becomes almost unbearable.

His novel Nexus begins by the narrator looking at a stack of books and talking about Dostoyevsky; a perfect nod.

“Like the discovery of love, like the discovery of the sea, the discovery of Dostoyevsky is always a memorable time in our lives. It usually happens during adolescence; maturity seeks out and finds more serene writers.”
–Jorge Luis Borges

Writers whose sentences tumble out. Writers whose paragraphs are like great tangles that can swallow up more and more, a self-contained apparatus.

But also writers whose books have splendid architectures.

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It’s a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times. When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping through the kitchen (Pnin a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita), or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard (or a series of squirrels, depending on their methodology). Even the architect’s claim on his creation seems secondary to your wonderful way of living in it.
–Zadie Smith

The pleasure of being swept by the whirlwinds of inspiration; but also, the pleasure of roaming an intricate building, opening a small door that leads to a dark and stately bedroom, returning to the hallway and feeling the scent of honeysuckle from the window, seeing a picture on a frame of an old man that reminds us of another picture in another room, of a younger man.

Literature is nothing more than a guided dream. Dreams often seem chaotic, but analyze them long enough and you will find a secret architecture that your brain crafted and then veiled from you. The surprise, and perhaps even the horror, of discovering that architecture is one of the many pleasures of literature.

And from time to time you will find those precious few writers who have a little bit of both things, burning orbs of inspiration contained within methodical madhouses. Faulkner and his dilapidated mansions.

Writers who are deliberately and carefully chaotic:

  • James Joyce
  • Roberto Bolaño
  • José Saramago
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • Julio Cortázar
  • Cervantes

Writers who are just chaotic:

  • Boris Vian
  • Roberto Arlt
  • Rabelais
  • Jack Kerouac
  • Julio Cortázar
  • Cervantes