Describing the Ineffable

Ancient temple by Piranesi … nothing to fear here.

 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was an Italian artist known for his etchings of Rome and a series of plates titled Carceri d’invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons. His Prisons are filled with high vaults, beams, machinery, and even a piece of impossible architecture à la M. C. Escher. (Bruno Ernst identifies it here; the link also provides a fun introduction into impossible geometry.)

 

Find the point of impossibility

 

 

With these pictures in mind, read the following Quote.

Quote: That night I couldn’t sleep. Toward sunrise I dreamed of an engraving in the style of Piranesi, one I’d never seen before or perhaps seen and forgotten—an engraving of a kind of labyrinth. It was a stone amphitheater with a border of cypresses but its walls stood taller than the tops of the trees. There were no doors or windows, but it was pierced by an infinite series of narrow vertical slits. I was using a magnifying glass to try to find the Minotaur. It was the monster of a monster; it looked less like a bull than like a buffalo, and its human body was lying on the ground. It seemed to be asleep, and dreaming—but dreaming of what, or of whom?

—Jorge Luis Borges, There are more things (Translation by Andrew Hurley)

A nightmare emerges. Where else to lock a Minotaur then in a Piranesi prison, to lend it an additional grotesque aspect?

 

Can you spot all the people walking up the stairs in the background? (click on the picture to enlarge)

 

In Symbols as Quotes, I discuss the various other references to people and places that  Borges weaves into his story. I saved Piranesi for last because of the strong visual effect his etchings could have on any interpretation of Borges’s story.

However, the magic of a story emerges not only from the elements that have been included, but also from how they have been linked. In There are more things, Borges’s goal is to create an atmosphere of ineffability: he is guiding us to imagine the unimaginable—a paradox. To achieve this he uses two strategies:

  1. figures of speech,
  2. extreme skewing of Freytag’s pyramid (or dramatic arc).

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Symbols as Quotes

 

Borges is a master forger of the complex connection. But it is only complex because the elements he brings together are sufficiently disparate that few people understand them immediately. As he himself says: In order truly to see a thing, one must first understand it.

Therefore, to truly see the complexity of his stories, you first must understand its elements, which often come in the form of proper nouns. With one word he quotes a whole body of work.

This is the most distilled form of testimony and of context creation. Borges is known for brevity.

Today’s post is symbol and sign-guide to Borges’s eight-page story There are more things from the collection The Book of Sand (1975). Think of it as a treasure hunt, where there’s no point claiming that you’ve followed the trail until you know what most of the the names mean. Some critics label this particular story’s climax as truly spine-chilling, only to accuse Borges of wasting words beforehand. But a climax makes no sense if there is no build-up, and a build-up only makes sense if you understand its symbols. And the symbols are truly

Well, judge for yourself.

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The World in the Mirror: Quirks and Perks

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_(mythology)

Narcissus by Caravaggio (1599)

 

Mirrors enlarge spaces, they double and reflect, and at night they reveal eerie shadows standing behind you. Mirrors achieve what paintings have been struggling to achieve since the discovery of perspective: their images are a planar phenomenon that revels in realistic depth.

There ought to be something more to the silvery surfaces than physics; they ought to be a gateway to another world.

Our imagination obliges.

Narcissus dies in love with his image, unable to reach it, unable to hold it—the cost of hubris.

Snow White imbues Mirror, Mirror with the power of taking an instantaneous beauty census and reporting it, but no cross-over occurs.

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), however, goes all the way and sends Alice into the Looking-glass House. Moments before she steps through, she stands on the mantlepiece in front of the huge wall-mirror gazing inside:

You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.

A question indeed: is the World of the Mirror the same beyond the bits you can see? Which has a similar paradoxical feeling to it like, Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one around to hear it, or, What is the sound of one hand clapping? 

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The Unnatural Act

Reading is an unnatural act. Unlike the appreciation of aural and visual arts, reading requires conscious effort even before deep interpretations are sought. Children see, smell, touch, hear, and learn to speak, before they master the written word. It’s the hardest form of basic communication. Harder still if it courts the edge of the expected by riding upside down on the underbelly of unnatural beings while holding onto its senses by the seams of its straightjacket. Hardest of all, possibly, if it’s …

… surrealism.

Dali flashes before the mind. But, that’s not what I mean: the visual mind sees, then interprets or doesn’t. Reading surrealist literature, however, is an act of spike-studded iron will (and no little amount of curiosity for the quaint that you hope no one else ever finds out about).

Forget drinking from a firehose—firehoses gush at you, and it’s just water. Think instead: a fountain spouting body parts, balloons, beetles, bronze tables and acid blue jackets floating between the blessings and the bronchitis, and you roll up your trousers, step over the rim into this bizarre potpourri, get dragged down by something slithering in the water, but continue sitting in there with water up to your chin, collecting random floating objects and putting them together like legos—creating your very own Frankenstein. Occasionally you pluck up a memory or a scar. Occasionally you cut yourself.

Who said that exploring the unexplored within the safety of a book was good practice?

I’m not trying to be off-putting.

Actually, I am: if you’re not the kind to throw yourself into the aforementioned fountain out of curiosity (or spite, or kink, or whichever particular personal quirk), I would recommend fishing out only choice morsels and grappling with them on dry land.

You might discover you’re developing some odd tastes.

Today’s rather tame Quote comes from The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. She died in 2011 at the age of 94, and was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. This is how she opens her short story called The Royal Summons. 

Quote: 

I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.
The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.
I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.
“I did it to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “There’s no better way of growing mushrooms.”
“Brady,” I said to him, “You’re a complete idiot. You have ruined my car.”
So, since my car was indeed completely out of action, I was obliged to hire a horse and a cart.

(Translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot with Marina Warner)

According to the information you have, where is the car? Take a guess.

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The Softness of the Pillows: Quirks and Perks

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Imaginary beings live on the thin strip of fancy between sobriety and nonsense—the one we all walk at least twice a day on most days, just before and just after sleep (the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states). To complete the previous two posts on imaginary beings, Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane and The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards, today I offer two quotes, from two very different authors, describing this creative threshold of consciousness.

The first is from Bruno Schulz’s short story Mr Charles, included in his collection The Street of Crocodiles (translated by Celina Wieniewska). He’s the only European I’ve come across who writes magical realism with a panache to match South American authors (I touch on this in Between Infinite and a Sneeze and Charged With Eternity). Note the richness of metaphor and simile.

Groping blindly in the darkness, he sank between the white mounds of cool feathers and slept as he fell, across the bed or with his head downward, pushing deep into the softness of the pillows, as if in sleep he wanted to drill through, to explore completely, that powerful massif of feather bedding rising out of the night. He fought in his sleep against the bed like a bather swimming against the current, he kneaded it and molded it with his body like an enormous bowl of dough, and woke up at dawn panting, covered in sweat, thrown up on the shores of that pile of bedding which he could not master in the nightly struggle. Half-landed from the depths of unconsciousness, he still hung on to the verge of night, grasping for breath, while the bedding grew around him, swelled and fermented—and again engulfed him in a mountain of heavy, whitish dough.

He slept thus until late morning, while the pillows arranged themselves into a larger flat plain on which his now quieter sleep would wander. On these white roads, he slowly returned to his senses, to daylight, to reality—and at last he opened his eyes as does a sleeping passenger when the train stops at a station.

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The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards

https://www.wikiart.org/en/maarten-de-vos/unicorn

Maarten de Vos, Unicorn, a familiar beast.

 

Of all the beasts in Jorge Luis Borge’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, I am most struck by those I do not understand. As understanding stems from familiarity—a fallacy and an illusion, but prevalent—I am left fascinated by those I cannot relate to. Or rather, by the ones that keep evading my grasp like Kafka’s godforsaken Odradek, a flat star-shaped spool for thread with a handle, mentioned last time in Playing Detective.

Borges’ book contains 120 entries detailing creatures born of mythology and literature. In his 1957 Preface, Borges chooses to mention the dragon.

Quote: We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster …

 

While reading his book, I noted that the most common feature seemed to be a relation to birds—about a fifth of the creatures has some capacity for feathered flight. Whether that makes them dragons or not, I’m not sure (I too am ignorant of the meaning of dragon), but if the chicken is the closest modern relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex, then perhaps we can assume birds and dragons hatch from similar eggs.

The two oddest imaginary birds are the Pinnacle Grouse and the Goofus bird found under the heading of Fauna of the United States. The Goofus bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been. I get queasy looking backwards when riding the bus, so I’d say that lifestyle takes a sturdy gizzard. Based on this scant information, I speculate that the Goofus bird would be a good pet for anyone in the sect Laudatores Temporis Acti, comprising those who worship the past—to them the past is absolute: it never had a present, nor can it be remembered or even guessed at. On second thought, according to them, the Goofus bird shouldn’t exist.

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Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane

joao-silas https://unsplash.com/search/photos/magnifying-glass?photo=I_LgQ8JZFGE

Why?

That one question gives life meaning. How, who, where, when, all lend solidity to our world, but the intangible web of causality tickles our imagination like nothing else. Asking why means staring into a chasm of chaos and glimpsing sense—the intellectual equivalent of climbing into the jaws of a shark, looking around, and coming out with a souvenir. It’s exhilarating.

Why is also the reason everyone likes playing detective occasionally.

Me included.

Today, I’m investigating The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (co-written with Margarita Guerrero), an encyclopedic account of a most eccentric menagerie. It contains familiar names such as Centaur and Cerberus, Norns and Nymphs, Salamander and Satyrs, amongst a whole plethora of unfamiliar ones. The starting point of my investigation is the opening of the Preface to the 1967 Edition.

Quote:
The title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, of the point, of the line, of the surface, of n-dimensional hyperplanes and hyper volumes, of all generic terms, and perhaps of each one of us and of the godhead. In brief, the sum of all things—the universe.
(Translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges)

My question: Why did Borges chose to include in his book Harpies, but not Hamlet, Fauna of Mirrors but not the symmetries of surface friezes, Animals in the Form of Spheres but not the n-sphere …? I suppose that including all generic terms, each of us, and the godhead, would require an infinite book like the The Book of Sand, Borges invented in his eponymous story published in 1975—over a decade after the Quote. In fact, given the Quote, The Book of Sand could be said to begin with an almost familiar sentence:

Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes…

A gander at Borges’s original work reveals he had other ways of addressing mathematical issues, so perhaps we can assume he simply left that for “later”.

Which leaves the question of why not Hamlet.

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Three Words: Quirks and Perks

aaron-burden https://unsplash.com/photos/xtIYGB0KEqc

Quote: Perfection is round.
—Anne Carson, Red Doc>

Perfection is simplicity: As of 3rd September, the Quote throws up six results on Google, all of which are Carson’s citations. In today’s age that translates to: she said it first.

Three words, two ordinary nouns and the most frequent verb of the English language in its most frequent form. And it’s not nonsense.

Let’s start with the verb.

Even though “to be” is often used to equate and identify, simple sentences centring around it are not obviously semantically symmetric: round is perfection, means something else. Think: the circle, the sphere, the sun—often taken as symbols of the ideal, the perfect, the godly. In both the Quote and in round is perfection, the subject complement states a property of the subject. Indeed, perfection and round are—as Carson says of two utterly different things—parts of each other / although not parts of a / whole.

Therefore, is is a simple verb that can denote mutual inclusion without denoting equivalence.

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All Those Times

fabrizio-verrecchia https://unsplash.com/search/photos/time?photo=Ai7sV3SSMIQ

Time is a lot of things. It’s precious, it’s money, it’s irreversible. It measures change and is defined by change. And, as I was proud of deducing early on (when I still thought of the world as consisting of either-or pieces), time is easy to measure: you’ve got an eternity ahead of you, until you have not a moment more.

Now here’s how Anne Carson thinks about Time at the beginning of a chapter in her verse-novel Red Doc> (I discuss the book’s unusual structure in my previous post, The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox).

Quote:
Time passes time
does not pass. Time all
but passes. Time usually
passes. Time passing and
gazing. Time has no gaze.

Sense or senseless? Let’s see, Time by Time in the Quote:

  • The first is a paradox. (Time is elusive)
  • The second is a quibble, a bridge between the two extremes, as is the third. (Time is finicky)
  • The fourth introduces a new theme of gazing, as we’d gaze from a car in passing. (Time is aloof)
  • The fifth denies the gaze. (Time is blind to our differences)

But that’s just the beginning. This chapter is fifty-one lines long, and she goes on to give another twenty-four instances of Time, most of which follow this pattern of starting a sentence with the same word—an example of the figure of speech called anaphora.

What makes the chapter special beyond the hammering of a repetitive element, however, is how Carson employs examples of Time to describe other human afflictions.

I’ve chosen to showcase some of her best ones (I quote her lines verbatim in italics, but I’ve left out the formatting). My interpretation is in square brackets.

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The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox

Juno, Jupiter and Io by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1672).

 

Io is a golden-eyed, white-haired, much-beloved musk-ox of Anne Carson’s protagonist, G, in her 2013 verse-novel Red Doc>.

How to unpack such a sentence? Try.

If you had a slightly vertiginous, confusing, yet ultimately not unsatisfactory experience figuring out three compound adjectives and two compound nouns, as well as, that Anne Carson is a poet, G is the name of (presumably) a person, Io is the name of a musk-ox, and that an angle bracket at the end of a book title is not an impossible concept … Excellent! You now have an inkling what it’s like to read Carson’s verse in general.

Of course, she does it better, and for longer, and without resorting to hyphens at every turn to compactify her images.

Quote: 
Blood still
buzzing with gorse she
does not hesitate to
believe that a masterpiece
like herself can fly.
Should fly. Does fly.

She in the Quote is Io the musk-ox.

I already wrote about Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998), which is also a verse-novel, albeit of different appearance and feel. It follows the childhood and early years of Geryon, a boy with red wings; it is written in free verse, alternating visually between long and short lines on the page, and it reads like a dense, lyrical, unconventional novel—like a novelisation of poetry.

Red Doc>, published fifteen years later, returns to follow a middle-aged Geryon, now referred to as G. It’s a connected sequence of free verse poems contained within two-inch columns, justified on both sides, and it unfurls down the middle of the page like the chatters marks of a glacier or like the clusters of aa lava.

Speaking of which: glaciers and lava, flying red-winged monsters and oxen, love and army, hospitals and Ancient Greece—expect to find them all within the pages of Red Doc>. Bizarre can be beautiful, and meaningful. Carson ensures it.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Intoxicated flying oxen.

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Inspired by the Ordinary: Quirks and Perks

 

Everyone likes a good myth. The Metamorphoses by Ovid comprises a couple hundred. Being a narrative poem from around 8 AD, it’s not exactly all the rage nowadays, but its influences have trickled down through much of Western literature.

In particular, I grew up on a children’s version of Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece, and I still fondly recall wondering what one would do with a golden fleece or how the cattle in the Augean stables could live in such filth. Recently, I decided to investigate some of the older sources like Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid.

The Greek and Roman mythologies are closely related, but translating between them requires a basic dictionary of terms. For example, Jove (or Jupiter) is Zeus, Juno is Hera, Mars is Ares, Minerva is Athena, and so on. It’s interesting how the names conflate in your mind, and yet they never quite do.

Today’s Quote is from the beginning of the The Metamorphoses describing the formation of the world (taken from Mandelbaum’s translation).

Quote:    
He ordered fog and clouds to gather there—
in air—and thunder, which would terrify
the human mind; there, too, the god assigned
the winds that, from colliding clouds, breed lightning.
(Lines 54–57)

Nothing special about it? Perhaps, not, but even ordinary quotes can inspire fiction. Here’s a short story I wrote to illustrate the point (1250 words).

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