The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Luis Borges’

A Period Equals Four Commas, and Other News

September 28, 2015 | by

Photo: Dvdgmz

  • Today in reading and statecraft: What’s your nation’s official book? Think. There must be one. “Each country chooses, prefers to be represented by a book,” Borges said, “although that book isn’t usually characteristic of the country. For example, one regards Shakespeare as typically English. However, none of the typical characteristics of the English are found in Shakespeare. The English tend to be reserved, reticent, but Shakespeare flows like a great river, he abounds in hyperbole and metaphor—he’s the complete opposite of an English person.”
  • Nothing causes more arguments than punctuation—of all the typographical elements, it’s ended the most marriages and caused the greatest number of bloody noses. But the contentions surrounding it have a rich history. “Scribes started to punctuate in order to make manuscripts easier to read aloud: they were signaling pauses and intonational effects. Grammarians and, later, printers adopted the marks, and tried to systematize them, as aids to semantic understanding on the page … The big four—comma, semicolon, colon and full stop—were for a long time, and insanely, regarded as precise measurements of a pause: a full stop was worth four commas.
  • In praise of the suburban lawn: “Even when you are indoors a lawn makes its presence felt. There is a palette of green hovering in your periphery, just outside the panes; breezes enter through open windows and screen doors, carrying scents of pine and gasoline. I was always dimly aware of being surrounded by a cushion of space, a feeling I never have in the city. Deep in the night, the lawn carries on its own hidden life. Animals stage unheard battles. My father found a cat’s head behind the shed. An unidentified predator dragged a chicken from a coop four backyards away, discarding the carcass, which looked like a crumpled Victorian hat, under my parent’s bedroom window.”
  • In the late nineteenth century, Hugh Mangum began to roam the South with a Penny Picture camera, taking portraits of all comers. “Mangum created an atmosphere—respectful and often playful— in which hundreds of men, women, and children genuinely revealed their spirits … Though the early twentieth-century American South in which he worked was marked by disenfranchisement, segregation, and inequality—between black and white, men and women, rich and poor—Mangum portrayed all of his sitters with candor, humor, and spirit. Above all, he showed them as individuals, and for that, his work—largely unknown—is mesmerizing. Each client appears as valuable as the next, no story less significant.”
  • Let’s talk about hair and its meanings, which are multiple, inscrutable, and, depending on whom you ask, probably sexual: “In his famous 1958 essay ‘Magical Hair,’ the anthropologist Edmund Leach developed a cross-cultural formula: ‘Long hair = unrestrained sexuality; short hair or partially shaved head or tightly bound hair = restricted sexuality; closely shaved head = celibacy.’ Leach was deeply influenced by Freud’s thoughts on phallic heads, although for him hair sometimes played an ejaculatory role as emanating semen.”

The Phantoms of the Fifteenth Arrondissement

August 11, 2015 | by

In an unremarkable section of Paris, Roger Caillois saw hiding places for “floating beings.”


Caillois ca. 1975. Photo: R. Minnaert

Pity the Fifteenth! Paris’s most populous arrondissement is also one of its least celebrated. Stretching from the Front de Seine high-rises in the northwest to the Tour de Montparnasse in the southeast, the Fifteenth is sleepy, residential, and architecturally undistinguished. Home to minor government agencies and the headquarters of various corporations, its streets and thoroughfares are named for military officers, former colonial possessions, inventors, and Émile Zola, France’s dullest great novelist. Rue des Entrepreneurs intersects Rue de Commerce, where it branches off into Rue de l’Église and Rue Mademoiselle, which gives a good indication of what was on the minds of the men who incorporated the small suburban villages of Grenelle, Javel, and Vaugirard into the metropolis in the early years of the Second Empire. To make matters worse, the Fifteenth is tantalizingly adjacent to some of Paris’s genuine landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, located just across the Avenue de Suffren in the Seventh, the Cimetière Montparnasse, on the other side of the neighborhood’s eponymous and much-reviled skyscraper, or the tony apartment buildings on right bank of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.

Yet this is Paris, and even the most unremarkable stretches of Zone 1 have their devoted mythographers. Born in 1913 in Reims, the jack-of-all-genres Roger Caillois knew something about being fame-adjacent. If you were to look at the faded group photographs of some of the most important avant-garde literary movements of the twentieth century, you would see him, in the background, with his thick eyebrows and chubby cheeks, manuscript in hand, ready to launch into a lecture about his latest intellectual obsession: mimicry, ludology, the sacred, gemstones, secret societies, science fiction, the City of Light. As a student at the prestigious École pratique des hautes études, Caillois became acquainted with the works of pioneering philosophers and anthropologists like Alexandre Kojève and Marcel Mauss. He was a member of the surrealists until a disagreement with André Breton over the nature of a Mexican jumping bean got him kicked out of the movement. He went on to found a discussion group, the Collège de Sociologie, with fellow excommunicant George Bataille, contributing articles to Bataille’s journal Acéphale while skipping the meetings of his secret society, one of which notoriously involved a serious discussion about a ritual sacrifice of one of the members. Walter Benjamin loathed him, but nevertheless included several citations from his writings on Paris in The Arcades Project. In Buenos Aires, where Caillois, a militant antifascist, spent the war years, he met Victoria Ocampo, the editor of the journal Sur. Ocampo was responsible for publishing some of the leading lights of what would become known as the Latin American Boom. Upon his return to France, Caillois took up a position at UNESCO, using his influence there to introduce the French reading public to his new friends Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Silvina Ocampo. Read More »

The Library of Babel as Seen from Within

July 23, 2015 | by

Reproducing Borges’s imaginary library online.


Since I first read it in a high school Spanish class, I’ve been fascinated by the theory of language implicit in Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” The story describes a universal library containing, in 410-page volumes, every possible permutation of twenty-two letters, spaces, commas, and periods—every book that’s ever been written and every book that ever could be, drowned out by endless pages of gibberish. Its librarians are addicted to the search for certain master texts, the complete catalog of the library, or the future history of one’s own life, but their quest inevitably ends in failure, despair, even suicide.

Perhaps I was obsessed by the same desire for revelation, or haunted by the same subversion of all rational pursuit. In either case, fifteen years later the idea came to me one night of using the vast calculative capacities of a computer to re-create the Library of Babel as a Web site. For those interested in experiencing the futile hope of Borges’s bibliotecarios, I’ve made, which now contains anything we ever have written or ever will write, including these sentences I struggle to compose now. Here, to give you a sense of the vastness and the unintelligibility of such a project, is a random page: Read More »

Lot 51

June 18, 2015 | by

Borges, Xul Solar, and the occult.

Alejandro Xul Solar - Trogloditas

Alejandro Xul Solar, Trogloditas, 1948.

This story is an excerpt from To the Country, a new iBook album by The Size Queens featuring fiction by Joy Williams, Rick Moody, and more.

Lot 51, “The Aleph” by Alejandro Xul Solar, oil, minerals and metals on canvas, 32" x 44.25", 1930.

Xul Solar first painted the Aleph in 1930, but years were to pass before he and his friend J. L. Borges were able to make full use of its divinatory properties, even though it was clear from the moment the work was finished that the quasi-reptilian figure filling the image’s First Door, known to the two as Platon, was able to move freely about the canvas according to his own purposes (his skin in motion acquiring bluish-silvery reflected tints that faded in repose.) Experiments demonstrated that the viewer’s affinity with Platon and certain other figures in the composition resulted in an increased ability to understand and speak foreign languages (“babelismo”); subsequently other correspondences were revealed. Borges, whose middle finger Platon learned to reach out and grasp in a papery but very tight clutch, drawing a little more blood each time, was to prove the image’s most successful interpreter. Such was the lure of the mental enhancement thereby produced that Borges never failed to offer his hand to the painting, which was hidden in the dark recesses of Solar’s attic chambers, whenever the opportunity arose. In time the author’s left middle fingernail split in two with a thick dark pointed scar in its center. And as his inward sight grew keener, Borges’s physical vision commenced to fail: another price he gladly paid.

Solar made three more attempts to depict the Aleph. The second of the four (1931–33, tempera on wood panel, 112.5 x 78 cm) proved to offer the richest “prepotencies” as the visions came to be called. Impulsively, Solar gave the painting to Borges at the end of a somewhat maudlin and vinous evening full of French poetry and games of panjedrez, all of which Borges lost, just before the sun rose on a fragrant Buenos Aires bower in November of 1936. Solar’s diaries and sketchbooks reveal a keen regret over having made this gift, but being a proud man as well as a kind one, he never asked for its return. Read More »

“I Will Not Be Trifled With!” and Other News

April 30, 2015 | by


Adolf Emil Hering, Wilhelm II, Deutscher Kaiser, 1910.

  • Finnegans Wake, in all its difficulty, was onlycrying out for the invention of the web, which would enable the holding of multiple domains of knowledge in the mind at one time that a proper reading requires.” A wealth of new projects online aim to help readers parse, demystify, and/or grapple with the text; “maybe, just maybe, future generations will look back on early discussions of Finnegans Wake’s unreadability and wonder what the hell was the matter with us.”
  • Borges’s “The Library of Babel” has been re-created online, too, in the form of a site that, if it’s ever completed, “would contain every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including lowercase letters, space, comma, and period … The library creates a tantalizing promise of reason—somewhere in its pages are all the works lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and every future masterpiece—but drowned out by infinite pages of nonsense.”
  • A lost 1972 interview with Ray Bradbury, animated for Blank on Blank: “People need you. Go on TV. It can be done. After you speak up a few times, people say, ‘Hey, we got a crazy man in the community,’ and they’ll begin talking to you.”
  • A new documentary, Even Though the Whole World Is Burning, follows W. S. Merwin’s attempts to plant a forest of palm trees in Hawaii. “For forty years, [he] planted a tree every day that he could, restoring nineteen acres of land in Haiku, Hawaii, even as it seemed the world might well be ending, first from military conflict and then from ecological crisis. The film is a chronicle of a man struggling to make meaning through tiny, trembling acts.”
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II liked to talk—a lot. “Virtually everything the Kaiser said, no matter how risible, was recorded and preserved for posterity … he cajoles, whines, demands, vociferates and babbles, bombarding his interlocutors with fantastical geopolitical speculations, crackpot plans, sarcastic asides and off-color jokes. Reading Wilhelm II on every conceivable subject … is like listening for days on end to a dog barking inside a locked car.”

The Missing Borges

December 23, 2014 | by

Seven years ago, a stolen first edition of Borges’s early poems was returned to Argentina’s National Library. But was it the right copy?

Jorge_Luis_Borges_1963 Alicia D'Amico

Jorge Luis Borges in 1963. Photo: Alicia D'Amico

The world of rare books and manuscripts is full of intrigues, betrayals, and frauds. Alberto Casares has lived in this world for decades; as the president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Buenos Aires, he’s an expert on the subject. He’s got the physique du rôl: a gray, messy beard; a soft body; an intense and wary look.

A few months ago, Casares was offered a seventeenth-century original edition of Don Quixote for one million euros. He recognized it as a well-known forgery from the nineteenth century, worth no more than €200,000. The seller took it away, determined to find a more unsuspecting client, and Casares was left alone with the melancholy of having lost something that was never his to own.

What would some people give to own it? Casares told me, “Bibliographers are willing to commit crimes to follow their mad desire to own things.” He was thinking of a former client, Daniel Pastore, a collector of rare books and first editions, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune and owner of Imago Mundi, Buenos Aires’s most elegant antiquarian bookshop, which closed a few years ago after a succession of international scandals involving Pastore.

Casares was annoyed and fascinated by Pastore, who was eighteen the first time he walked into Casare’s bookshop. He was handsome, rich, likeable, and learned—a good client. But he was also pedantic; he claimed to know more about rare books than Casares. Sometimes he did. But not when it came to Jorge Luis Borges. Read More >>