The Voynich MS
The Garden of Forking Paths
The Alphe (and the Diamond Sutra)

The Tower of Babel and Wikipedia and beyond

From Borges‘ “Book of Sand“:

Borges obtained an old  cloth-bound book that he bought in India from an Untouchable. It was emblazoned with the title “Holy Writ”, but is said to be called “The Book of Sand”…”because neither the book nor the sand has any beginning or end”.

Upon opening it, he was startled to discover that the book, which was written in an unknown language and occasionally punctuated by illustrations, was in fact infinite: if one turns the pages, more pages seem to grow out of the front and back covers.  Borges obsessed over the book, cataloging its illustrations, and refusing to go outside for fear of its theft. He finally decided to go to the National Library (where he once worked)  to lose it among the basement bookshelves, reasoning that “the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest”.

Jorge_Luis_Borges_1951,_by_Grete_Stern-2Borges’s best-known set of literary forgeries date from his early work as a translator and literary critic with a regular column in the Argentine magazine El Hogar. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works, for example, in the style of Emanuel Swedenborg or One Thousand and One Nights, originally claiming them to be translations of works he had chanced upon. In another case, he added three short, falsely attributed pieces into his otherwise legitimate and carefully researched anthology El matrero. Several of these are gathered in the A Universal History of Infamy.

At times he wrote reviews of nonexistent writings by some other person. The key example of this is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“, which imagines a twentieth-century Frenchman who tries to write Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote verbatim, not by having memorized Cervantes’s work but as an “original” narrative of his own invention. Initially the Frenchman tries to immerse himself in sixteenth-century Spain, but he dismisses the method as too easy, instead trying to reach Don Quixote through his own experiences. He finally manages to (re)create “the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two.” Borges’s “review” of the work of the fictional Menard uses tongue-in-cheek comparisons to explore the resonances that Don Quixote has picked up over the centuries since it was written. He discusses how much “richer” Menard’s work is than that of Cervantes’s, even though the actual text is exactly the same.

While Borges was the great popularizer of the review of an imaginary work, he had developed the idea from Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a book-length review of a non-existent German transcendentalist work, and the biography of its equally non-existent author. In This Craft of Verse, Borges says that in 1916 in Geneva “discovered, and was overwhelmed by, Thomas Carlyle. I read Sartor Resartus, and I can recall many of its pages; I know them by heart.”In the introduction to his first published volume of fiction, The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges remarks, “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books, setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” He then cites both Sartor Resartus and Samuel Butler‘s The Fair Haven, remarking, however, that “those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.”

On the other hand, Borges was wrongly attributed some works, like the poem “Instantes”.

If the pages of this book contain some successful verse, the reader must excuse me the discourtesy of having usurped it first. Our nothingness differs little; it is a trivial and chance circumstance that you should be the reader of these exercises and I their author.

“To the Reader” [“A quien leyere”], preface to Fervor of Buenos Aires [Fervor de Buenos Aires] (1923)

The Voynich Manuscript, a 800-year-old(?) illustrated book written in an unknown script. Could this still-unsolved mystery have inspired Borges’ Book of Sand?

That one individual should awaken in another memories that belong to still a third is an obvious paradox.

Evaristo Carriego (1930) Ch. 2
The vast ineptitude of his pretense would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud.
“The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro”, in A Universal History of Iniquity (1935); tr. Andrew Hurley, Collected Fictions (1998)

(above applies to Kosinski)

  • The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.
    • “The Library of Babel” [“La Biblioteca de Babel”] (1941) First lines

Let heaven exist, though my own place may be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification.

  • I know ofonesemibarbarous zone whose librarians repudiate the “vain and superstitious habit” of trying to find sense in books, equating such a quest with attempting to find meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines on the palms of one’s hand.
    • “The Library of Babel” (1941); tr. Andrew Hurley, Collected Fictions (1998)
  • Every novel is an ideal plane inserted into the realm of reality.
  • When one confesses to an act, one ceases to be an actor in it and becomes its witness, becomes a man that observes and narrates it and no longer the man that performed it.
    • “Guayaquil”, in Brodie’s Report (1970); tr. Andrew Hurley, Collected Fictions (1998)
    • The fact is that poetry is not the books in the library . . . Poetry is the encounter of the reader with the book, the discovery of the book.
      • “Poetry” (1977)
    • It is venturesome to think that a coordination of words (philosophies are nothing more than that) can resemble the universe very much. It is also venturesome to think that of all these illustrious coordinations, one of them — at least in an infinitesimal way — does not resemble the universe a bit more than the others.

The central problem of novel-writing is causality.

  • “Narrative Art and Magic” [“El arte narrativo y la magia”]
    • The Garden of Forking Paths

    • A labyrinth of symbols… An invisible labyrinth of time.
      • It seemed incredible to me that day without premonitions or symbols should be the one of my inexorable death.
        • Variant translation: It seemed incredible that this day, a day without warnings or omens, might be that of my implacable death.

I reflected that everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen; countless men in the air, on the face of the earth and the sea, and all that really is happening is happening to me . . .

    • I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.

      • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars.

I thought that a man can be an enemy of other men, of the moments of other men, but not of a country: not of fireflies, words, gardens, streams of water, sunsets.

      • A labyrinth of symbols… An invisible labyrinth of time.
      • Ts’ui Pe must have said once: I am withdrawing to write a book. And another time: I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth. Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing.
      • I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.
      • In the work of Ts’ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings. Sometimes, the paths of this labyrinth converge: for example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another, my friend.

      This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

      • In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?
      • The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us.
        • Variant translation: This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries — embrace every possibility.
      • Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy.
  • The Garden of Forking Paths  It was the first of Borges’s works to be translated into English when it appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in August 1948.

    According to Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort , “The concept Borges described in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’—in several layers of the story, but most directly in the combination book and maze of Ts’ui Pên—is that of a novel that can be read in multiple ways, a hypertext novel. Borges described this in 1941, prior to the invention (or at least the public disclosure) of the electromagnetic digital computer. Not only did he arguably invent the hypertext novel—Borges went on to describe a theory of the universe based upon the structure of such a novel.” [1] Borges’s vision of “forking paths” has been cited as inspiration by numerous new media scholars, in particular within the field of hypertext fiction.

  • Borges conceives of “a labyrinth that folds back upon itself in infinite regression”, asking the reader to “become aware of all the possible choices we might make.” [4] The elaborate hypertext is much like the book which Borges suggests to be the labyrinth, (“Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing…the confusion of the novel suggested to me that it was the maze” [1] ) in a sense of how the site offers different approaches to how you may interpret the information provided, yet you’re not trapped in the dilemma of choosing one and eliminating others; you may choose to unfold all possibilities. You “create , in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork” (Wardrip-Fruin, 33).

    Other stories by Borges that express the idea of infinite texts include “The Library of Babel ” and “The Book of Sand “. [1]

    Some modern reflexes of the Borgesian hypertext format include:

      • Soft Cinema by Lev Manovich , a form of non-linear media that demonstrates flexibility within narrative forms, whereby movies are created through algorithm software that determines the ordering of film fragments, and for which there is no final, intended product.
    • Jodi , a puzzling hypertext project which reflects upon Borges’ idea of this attribute of complexity linking the novel to the labyrinth.

Letters to Borges, Susan Sontage

  • Borges

    I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.  

    I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.  

    I have known uncertainty: a state unknown to the Greeks.  

    In general, every country has the language it deserves.  

    In the order of literature, as in others, there is no act that is not the coronation of an infinite series of causes and the source of an infinite series of effects.  

    Life itself is a quotation.  

    Like all those possessing a library, Aurelian was aware that he was guilty of not knowing his in its entirety.  

    Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned.  

    Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.  

    One concept corrupts and confuses the others. I am not speaking of the Evil whose limited sphere is ethics; I am speaking of the infinite.  

    Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art.  

    Reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.  

    Reality is not always probable, or likely.  

    The central problem of novel-writing is causality.  

    I cannot conceive how anybody in his right mind should go to a psychoanalyst.  

    I confess, I do not believe in time.  

    I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.  

    I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.  

    I would like to spare the time and effort of hack reviewers and, generally, persons who move their lips when reading.  

    It’s a pity one can’t imagine what one can’t compare to anything. Genius is an African who dreams up snow.  

    Life is a great sunrise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.  

    Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.  

    My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.  

    Poetry involves the mysteries of the irrational perceived through rational words.  

    Revelation can be more perilous than Revolution.  

    Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.  

    Some people, and I am one of them, hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm.  

    Style and Structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.  

    The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.  

    The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.  

    The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense.  

    The good, the admirable reader identifies himself not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed that book.  

    The more gifted and talkative one’s characters are, the greater the chances of their resembling the author in tone or tint of mind.  

    The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.  

    There are aphorisms that, like airplanes, stay up only while they are in motion.  

    To play safe, I prefer to accept only one type of power: the power of art over trash, the triumph of magic over the brute.  

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