David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2007

Borges: The House of Asterion

Of Mirrors and the Labyrinth, quoted by Art of Memory, made me remember that crucial Borges story that is not as well-known as some, “The House of Asterion.” It is one of Borges’s more explicit invocations of Kafka, and specifically of Kafka’s parables. I’ll just quote the whole thing, seeing as it’s very short:

And the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion. (Apollodorus Bibliotecha III, I)

I know they accuse me of arrogance, and perhaps misanthropy, and perhaps of madness. Such accusations (for which I shall exact punishment in due time) are derisory. It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose numbers are infinite) (footnote: The original says fourteen, but there is ample reason to infer that, as used by Asterion, this numeral stands for infinite.) are open day and night to men and to animals as well. Anyone may enter. He will find here no female pomp nor gallant court formality, but he will find quiet and solitude. And he will also find a house like no other on the face of this earth. (There are those who declare there is a similar one in Egypt, but they lie.) Even my detractors admit there is not one single piece of furniture in the house. Another ridiculous falsehood has it that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Shall I repeat that there are no locked doors, shall I add that there are no locks? Besides, one afternoon I did step into the street; If I returned before night, I did so because of the fear that the faces of the common people inspired in me, faces as discolored and flat as the palm of one’s hand. the sun had already set ,but the helpless crying of a child and the rude supplications of the faithful told me I had been recognized. The people prayed, fled, prostrated themselves; some climbed onto the stylobate of the temple of the axes, others gathered stones. One of them, I believe, hid himself beneath the sea. Not for nothing was my mother a queen; I cannot be confused with the populace, though my modesty might so desire. The fact is that that I am unique. I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing. Bothersome and trivial details have no place in my spirit, which is prepared for all that is vast and grand; I have never retained the difference between one letter and another. A certain generous impatience has not permitted that I learn to read. Sometimes I deplore this, for the nights and days are long.

Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor. I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed. There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. At any time I can pretend to be asleep, with my eyes closed and my breathing heavy. (Sometimes I really sleep, sometimes the color of day has changed when I open my eyes.) But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house. With great obeisance I say to him “Now we shall return to the first intersection” or “Now we shall come out into another courtyard” Or “I knew you would like the drain” or “Now you will see a pool that was filled with sand” or “You will soon see how the cellar branches out”. Sometimes I make a mistake and the two of us laugh heartily.

Not only have I imagined these games, I have also meditated on the house. All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards pools are fourteen (infinite) in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather it is the world. However, by dint of exhausting the courtyards with pools and dusty gray stone galleries I have reached the street and seen the temple of the Axes and the sea. I did not understand this until a night vision revealed to me that the seas and temples are also fourteen (infinite) in number. Everything is repeated many times, fourteen times, but two things in the world seem to be repeated only once: above, the intricate sun; below Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house, but I no longer remember.

Every nine years nine men enter the house so that I may deliver them from evil. I hear their steps or their voices in the depths of the stone galleries and I run joyfully to find them. The ceremony lasts a few minutes. They fall one after another without my having to bloody my hands. They remain where they fell and their bodies help distinguish one gallery from another. I do not know who they are, but I know that one of them prophesied, at the moment of his death, that some day my redeemer would come. Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise above the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no longer even a vestige of blood. “Would you believe it, Ariadne?” said Theseus “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

Hermetic isolation, an invocation of Purgatory as conceived by Dante, and to labyrinths before and after, to the invented worlds of Tlon and the murderous architecture of “Death and the Compass.”

Occurrences at Owl Creek Bridge: Beyond the Zeroes

Last time, I was talking about the particularly American “Owl Creek Bridge” trope of the pre-death fantasy of survival, cut short (to the surprise of the subject) by death interrupting the ongoing fantasy. This is not anything like a near-death experience; it’s the opposite, since rather than experiencing a false death, the person experiences a false life. Their rescue is in the certainty of death. That finality is, fundamentally, eschatological, in that it requires the establishment of a definite reality that trumps the fantasy, and that reality is nothing but the end of one’s life, which is ultimate. It does not appear at first glance to be religious, but as with so many American tropes, revivalist roots run deep, and the faith that death will provide certainty and be the tipping point from fantasy back to reality is a small little religious system unto itself.

I mention this because the earlier point, at which reality veers into fantasy, is the point at which one’s faith is failed. Reality ceases to work, physical laws go haywire, and so on. What’s failed, then, is that the expected eschatological event–death–has not happened, and so there is this period of unreality that exists. And this sounds rather like the nightmare scenario of all prophets, in which the events they unwisely predicted too specifically fail to occur. For example, millennialism, when the promise of all sorts of finality and salvation led to much grief when the events did not arrive. Expert millennialist Norman Cohn says:

Millenarian sects and movements always picture salvation as:

  1. collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;

  2. terrestrial (or immanent), in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some other-worldly (transcendent) heaven;

  3. imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

  4. total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;

  5. miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies.

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium

[Side note: I happen to be reading Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern World, and Blumenberg uses some of these very qualities, particularly those of imminence and totality, to argue that the idea of incremental human “progress” is in no way a secularization of Christian eschatology, but in fact a new paradigm altogether.]

But when the stated arrival of salvation does not arrive, there is a problem. Just as when Bierce’s hero is hanged but seemingly does not die, the failure of this total, imminent change to occur itself produces a drastic change from what went before, as the expected outcome (death or salvation) has now been replaced with a void that must be filled by something new, and that something, whatever it is, is by definition unreal. Cults, crusades, even more superstitions than before.

I wish I could remember who suggested the idea (probably multiple people), but I give some credence to the idea that there was a collective conception of the last century leading up to the millennium. The thrill of the odometer rolling over to 2000 acquired many vague significances. And when 2000 came, there was no dominant idea of what was going to happen (excepting perhaps the minor faux-apocalypse of the Y2K bug), but the date served as a significant dividing point that just didn’t signify anything. So the idea was that people saw the year 2000 as an apogee of Western civilization, coming after so many wars and upheavals and global growth, and as some sort of point of accomplishment. And when there was, in fact, no sense of accomplishment or even any change when the year came, a similar sort of unreality (or, if we’re going to play with Musilian terms, pseudoreality) came into existence to replace the unsatisfied amorphous expectation. And this would take the form of an unreal postlude to the unsatisfied reality, rather than a new situation in itself. For me, living in the United States, the greatest sign of this unreality was the election of George W. Bush and the abandonment of sixty-plus years of relatively consistent (if brutal and expedient) geopolitical strategy for an unprecedented attack on all standards of competence and legitimacy in government. Their attacks on the “reality-based community” were not just triumphalist idiocies, but an idea that expanded to fill the void left at the branch point of the millennium.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The rules no longer apply! History is made by those who realize that things have changed. Whatever was supposed to have happened in 2000 and seemingly didn’t will pursue us, and these men will bring it to us by aggressively denying the “reality” which no longer, in fact, exists. Much ink has been spilled over how great a role the Christian religion plays in driving the administration, but this is really besides the point, because most of it has fallen by the wayside for them, save for the eschatology of Revelations and apocalypse. Destabilization is now the goal itself, not a tool, because the supposed stability is no longer really there anyway. It faded along with “reality” for these people.

To be continued: next time, the Omega point and the real secularization of eschatology.

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