The Horrible Existential Dread of NPCs and Skyboxes

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about video games as a medium.

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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.

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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 into these miniatures, into little stories, into summarizing novels, showing what I see from a distance, like a prisoner looking into a meadow through a hole in his cell.)

– – –

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”; he staunchly defended Jews in Argentina, in a time (WWII) where being an anti-Semite there was very much in fashion, by writing essays on Argentinian nationalist hypocrisy (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); he was once severely beaten up after he started cursing a truck full of Peronists. 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 Adderall. 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

Shakespeare’s Memory, by Jorge Luis Borges

(This story can be found in Borges’ last short story collection, published in 1983.
Translation mine.)

There are men devoted to Goethe, to the Eddas, to the belated songs of the Nibelungen; Shakespeare has been my destiny. It remains my destiny still, but in a way no one could have predicted, save for one man, Daniel Thorpe, who has just died in Pretoria. There is another, whose face I have never seen.

I am Hermann Soergel. The curious reader has perhaps perused my “Chronology of Shakespeare”, which I once considered necessary for a good understanding of the plays and was translated into several languages, including Spanish. It is not impossible that they remember a prolonged controversy surrounding a certain emendation that Theobald included in his critical edition of 1734, which has been an undisputed part of the canon since then. Today I am surprised of the uncivilized tone of those almost foreign pages. Around 1914 I wrote–but did not publish–a study on the compound words that the Hellenist and playwright George Chapman forged for his Homeric translations, which set the English language, without him knowing it, back to its Anglo-Saxon origins (Urprung). I never thought that his voice, which I have now forgotten, would seem familiar to me… some other article signed with my initials completes, I think, my literary biography. I am not sure if it’s fair to mention an unpublished translation of Macbeth, which I began in order to stop thinking about the death of my brother Otto Julius, who fell in the Western front in the year 1917. I never finished it; I realized that English pleasantly contains two registers, the Germanic and the Latin, while our German, despite its best music, must limit itself to only one.

I have already mentioned Daniel Thorpe. Major Barclay introduced us, in a certain Shakespearean congress. I will not mention the place, nor the date; I know very well that such precisions are, in reality, vague.

More important than his face, which my partial blindness helps me forget, was Daniel Thorpe’s notorious unhappiness. Throughout the years, a man can pretend to be many things, but he cannot pretend to be happy. In an almost physical way, Daniel Thorpe exhaled melancholy.

After a long session, the night found us in a random tavern. In order to feel that we were in England (where we already were) we drank in ritual several mugs of warm black beer.

“In Punjab,” said the major, “there lived an old beggar man. An ancient Islamic tradition attributes to king Solomon the ownership of a ring that allowed him to understand the language of birds. Everyone thought this beggar man owned that ring. Its worth was so incalculable that he could never sell it and he died in one of the courtyards of the Wazil Khan mosque, in Lahore.”

I thought that Chaucer was perhaps aware of this fabled ring, but mentioning it would have spoiled Barclay’s anecdote.

“And the ring?” I asked.

“It was lost, as it happens with magical objects. Perhaps it is hidden away in some corner of the mosque or in the hands of a man who lives in a land with no birds.”

“Or a land with so many birds,” I said, “that their many voices cannot be understood. Your story, Barclay, is something of a parable.”

That is when Daniel Thorpe spoke. He did it in an impersonal way, not looking at us. He pronounced his English in a curious way, which I attributed to a long residence in the East.

“It is not a parable,” he said, “and if it is, it is true. There are things of such worth that they cannot be sold.”

The words I try to reproduce were less impressive than the conviction with which Daniel Thorpe said them. We thought he would continue talking, but he suddenly stopped, perhaps with regret. Barclay said goodbye. The two of us walked back to the hotel. It was very late, but Thorpe suggested we continued our talk in his room. After a few trivialities, he said:

“I offer you Solomon’s ring. Of course, this is a metaphor, but what this metaphor alludes to is no less fantastic than the ring. I offer you the memory of William Shakespeare between his most puerile years and the first days of April, 1616.”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak. It was as if someone offered me the sea.

Thorpe continued:

“I am not an impostor. I am not mad. I beg you to suspend your judgment until you’ve heard it all. The major must have told you that I am, or was, a military surgeon. The story is not long. It begins in the Orient, in a hospital at dawn. The precise date does not matter. With his last breath, a soldier, Adam Clay, who was hit by two rifle shots, offered me, before his end, the precious memory. Agony and fever can be inventive; I took the offer without believing in it. Besides, after a battle, nothing is too strange. He barely had enough time to explain the curious conditions of the gift. The owner must offer it aloud and the other must accept it. The giver loses it forever.”

I thought the name of the soldier and the pathetic circumstances of the story seemed literary, in the worst sense of the word.

A bit intimidated, I asked him, “Do you have Shakespeare’s memory now?”

“I have, for now, two memories. My own and the one of that Shakespeare who I partially am. Or rather, two memories have me. There are zones where they become confused. There is a woman’s face–I don’t know which century I should attribute it to.”

I asked, “What have you done with Shakespeare’s memory?

There was silence. Then he said, “I have written a biography in the form of a novel which was disdained by the critics and had some commercial success in the United States and the colonies. I believe that is all. I have warned you that my gift is not easy to possess. I await your answer.”

I stood in thought. Hadn’t I dedicated my whole life, no less dull than strange, to the search of Shakespeare? Wasn’t it fair that at the end of the road I should find him? I said, carefully articulating each word:

“I accept the memory of Shakespeare.”

Something certainly happened, but I couldn’t feel it.

Some vague fatigue, perhaps imaginary.

I clearly remember Thorpe telling me, “The memory has already entered your consciousness, but you must find it. It will appear in dreams, in your waking hours, when you turn the page of a book or a corner. Do not be impatient, do not invent memories. Chance might favor or delay you, in its own mysterious way. As I begin to forget, you will begin to remember. I promise nothing more.”

We spent the rest of the night discussing the character of Shylock. I abstained from asking if Shakespeare had had personal relations with Jews. I didn’t want Thorpe to think I was testing him. I realized, perhaps with relief or perhaps a bit disturbed, that his opinions were as academic and conventional as mine.

Despite the previous night, I barely slept the next day. I discovered, like many other times, that I was a coward. For fear of being swindled, I didn’t give in to that generous hope. I wanted to believe that Thorpe’s gift was illusory. Irresistibly, hope prevailed. Shakespeare would be mine, like no one would ever own anyone else, not in love, nor in friendship, not even in hatred. In a way, I would be Shakespeare. I wouldn’t write the tragedies or the intricate sonnets, but I would remember the instant in which the Three Witches were revealed to me, and the instant where these vast lines were delivered to me:

And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this worldweary flesh.

I would remember Anne Hathaway like I remember that older woman who taught me how to love in an apartment in Lübeck, so many years ago (I tried to remember her and I could only recover the wallpaper, which was yellow, and the clarity of the window. This first failure should have made me anticipate all others.)

I had postulated that the images of the precious memory would be, first and foremost, visual. Such was not the case. Days later, as I was shaving, I pronounced a few words which surprised me and which belonged, as a colleague pointed out, to the A.B.C. of Chaucer. One afternoon, as I was leaving the British Museum, I whistled a very simple tune I had never heard before. The reader will have noticed the common thread between the first revelations of a memory that was, despite the splendor of some metaphors, much more auditory than visual.

De Quincey wrote that a man’s brain is a palimpsest. Each new writing covers the previous and is covered by the next, but the almighty memory can exhume any impression, no matter how fleeting, if given enough stimulus. According to his will, there were no books, not even a Bible, in Shakespeare’s house, but no one ignores the books he frequented. Chaucer, Gower, Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Florio’s Montaigne, North’s Plutarch. I was the owner of Shakespeare’s memory; the reading, or rather the rereading, of those old volumes would be the stimulus I needed. I also reread his sonnets, his most immediate work. A few times I came upon an explanation or many explanations. Good poems demand to be read aloud; after a few days I was able to effortlessly recover the rough r’s and the open vowels of the 16th century.

I write in the Zeitschrift für germanische Philologie that sonnet 127 is about the memorable defeat of the Invincible Fleet. I didn’t remember that Samuel Butler, in 1899, had already formulated that thesis.

A visit to Stratford-on-Avon was, predictably, sterile.

Then it came the gradual transformation of my dreams. I didn’t receive, like De Quincey, splendid nightmares, nor pious allegorical visions. Strange faces and strange rooms crept into my nights. The first face I recognized was Chapman’s; then the face of Ben Jonson and one of the poet’s neighbors who does not appear in any biography, but who Shakespeare would often see.

Whoever buys an encyclopedia doesn’t buy each line, each paragraph, each page and each illustration; he merely buys the possibility to know a few of these things. If this happens with a concrete and relatively simple object, given the alphabetical order of its parts, what wouldn’t happen with an abstract and varied object, ondoyant et divers, like the memory of a dead man?

No one can see in a single instant the plenitude of his past. Nor Shakespeare, nor I, his partial heir, were blessed with that gift. The memory of man is not a sum; it is a disorder of undefined possibilities. Saint Augustine spoke, if I remember correctly, of the palaces and caverns of memory. The second metaphor is more just. Into these caverns I walked.

Like ours, Shakespeare’s memory included zones, great zones of shadow deliberately rejected by him. Not without indignation I remembered that Ben Jonson made him read Latin and Greek hexameters aloud, and that the ear, the incomparable ear of Shakespeare, used to read a few of them wrong, to the boisterous laughter of his colleagues.

I knew states of luck and shadow that transcend common human experience. Without knowing it, my long and studious solitude had prepared me for the docile reception of the miracle.

After about a month, the dead man’s memory filled me with joy. During a week of curious happiness, I believed I was Shakespeare. His works were renewed to me. I knew that the moon, to Shakespeare, was less the moon than Diana and less Diana than that obscure word that delays itself: moon. I wrote down another discovery. Shakespeare’s apparent mistakes, those absence dans l’infini that Hugo apologetically mentions, were deliberate. Shakespeare tolerated them, or weaved them into his plays, so that his discourse, destined to the stage, would seem spontaneous and not too polished and artificial (nicht allzu glatt und gekunstelt). This same deliberation moved him to mix his metaphors:

                        my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf.

One morning I glimpsed a certain guilt at the bottom of his memory. I will not try to define it; Shakespeare has done that forever. It is enough to say that this guilt had nothing to do with perversion.

I understood that the three faculties of the human soul, memory, understanding and will, are not a scholastic fiction. The memory of Shakespeare could only reveal to me the circumstances of Shakespeare. It is obvious that these cannot define the singularity of the poet; what matters is the work he crafted out of that despicable material.

I had ingenuously anticipated, like Thorpe, the writing of a biography. It didn’t take me very long to realize that this literary genre requires the conditions of a writer, which certainly do not belong to me. I cannot narrate. I cannot narrate my own story, which is much more mundane than Shakespeare’s. Besides, that book would be pointless. Chance or fate gave Shakespeare the trivial and terrible things that every man knows; he was able to transform them into fables, into characters more vivid than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses that the generations of men will not forget, into verbal music. Why unravel that web, why undermine that tower, why reduce to the measured proportions of a documented biography or a realist novel the sound and the fury of Macbeth?

Goethe is the official cult of Germany; more intimate is the cult of Shakespeare, which we profess not without nostalgia. (In England, Shakespeare, who is so different from the English, constitutes the official cult; the book of England is the Bible.)

During the first stage of my adventure I felt the joy of being Shakespeare; after that, the oppression and terror. At first the two memories didn’t mix their waters. With time, the great river of Shakespeare threatened, and almost overtook my modest course. I noticed with fear that I had begun to forget the language of my elders. Since personal identity is based on memory, I feared for my sanity.

My friends would come to visit me; I was astounded that they couldn’t perceive I was in hell.

I began to disbelieve of the common things that surrounded me (die alltagliche Umwelt). A certain morning I was lost amidst great formations of iron, wood and glass. Whistles and clamors bewildered me. It took me an instant, which seemed infinite, to recognize the engines and wagons of the Bremen station.

As the years go by, each man is forced to carry the increasing load of his memory. I was weighed down by two often mingling memories: mine and the other, incommunicable.

All things wish to persist in their being, wrote Spinoza. The stone wants to be a stone, the tiger a tiger, I wanted to be Hermann Soergel again.

I have forgotten the date in which I decided to free myself. I chose the easiest way. I dialed random phone numbers. The voices of children and women would answer. I thought my duty was to respect them. Finally, I heard the learned voice of a man. I said:

“Do you want Shakespeare’s memory? I know that what I offer you is grave. Think well.”

An incredulous voice replied:

“I will take the risk. I accept Shakespeare’s memory.”

I told him the conditions of the gift. Paradoxically, I felt the nostalgia of the book I should have written but couldn’t, and the fear that this host, this specter, would never let me write it.

I hung up and repeated like a prayer these resigned words:

Simply the thing I am shall make me live.

I had imagined disciplines to awaken the ancient memory; I had to seek others to erase it. One of many was the study of the mythology of William Blake, that rebellious disciple of Swedenborg. I realized that it was less complex than complicated. That path and other paths were useless; they all led to Shakespeare.

I finally found the only solution to populate my waiting: the strict and vast music: Bach.

P.S. 1924–I am now a man among men. In my waking hours I am the learned professor Hermann Soergel, who handles index cards and redacts erudite trivialities, but some dawns I know it is the other one who dreams. Some afternoons, I am surprised by small and fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic.

Moby-Dick: Extracts (Addendum)

Whale on the beach, you dinosaur,
what brought you smoothing into this dead harbor?
If you’d stayed inside you could have grown
as big as the Empire State. Still you are not a fish,
perhaps you like the land, you’d had enough of
holding your breath under water. What is it we want
of you? To take our warm blood into the great sea
and prove we are not the sufferers of god?
We are sick of babies crying and the birds flapping
loose in the air. We want the double to be big,
and ominous and we want to remember when you were
money in Massachusetts and yet were wild and rude
and killers.
Anne Sexton, Whale

The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

So it was that my most impressionable years of boyhood were spent gazing at not a whale but a whale’s penis.
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase

It is said that someone once asked Tennyson for his opinion on Walt Whitman. He said: ”I do not have an opinion. I know Whitman exists, just as I know there is a whale in the sea. That is not an opinion.” However, by saying ”a whale”, there seemed to be in Tennyson’s phrase the memory of something vast, barbarous and threatening, which is quite an opinion in itself.
Jorge Luis Borges

He said, ‘You cannot live in the ocean’
And she said to him
‘You never can live in the sky’
But the ocean is filled with tears
And the sea turns into a mirror
There’s a whale in the moon when it’s clear
And a bird on the tide
Tom Waits, Fish & Bird

For when this moment is attained we who imagined that we were sitting in the belly of the whale and doomed to nothingness suddenly discover that the whale was a projection of our own insufficiency. The whale remains, but the whale becomes the whole wide world, with stars and seasons, with banquets and festivals, with everything that is wonderful to see and touch, and being that it is no longer a whale but something nameless because something that is inside as well as outside us.
Henry Miller

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Its skin is rugged and grey; seamen who see it believe it is an island. They tie their ships to this false land and disembark without fearing any danger. They camp, they make a fire, and they sleep, exhausted. The traitor then submerges into the ocean; it seeks its deepness and lets the ship and the men drown in this courthouse of death.
Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

Here now, with neither kin nor quest,
I am so full of sea
That whales may make of me a nest
And go to sleep in me.
Malcolm Lowry, Alcoholic

Perhaps it is not useless to point out that in ancient books, a search was always fortunate; the Argonauts reached the Fleece and Galahad the Holy Grail. Nowadays, however, we find a mysterious joy in the concept of something that, once found, produces horrible consequences. K., the land surveyor, will never reach the castle, and the white whale is the doom of the one who finds it in the end.
Adolfo Bioy Casares, Los Orilleros

(((((((((((((Jonah in the belly of the beast)))))))))))))
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

Being a somewhat dark person myself, I fell in love with the idea that the mysterious thing you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive.
Laurie Anderson