Curiouser and Curiouser.

On page 190 of the 2007 New Directions edition of Borges’ Labyrinths you will find page 188 of the 2007 New Directions edition of Borges’ Labyrinths. More precisely, on page 188 you will find a version of page 190 lacking a number and with a font slightly larger and darker than the rest of the book, but in the proper* location (terminating the excellent essay “The Wall and the Books” about the Chinese emperor who both ordered the construction of the Great Wall and the destruction of all books. The two acts are linked, for Borges, but he is not sure of the precise nature of the connection.).

Inserted between pages 190 and 191 is a brief note apologizing for the error and promising to correct it in future editions, with the ‘proper’ page 190 printed on the reverse of the note (an unimportant middle page to “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal”, a piece used extensively in Mirowski’s commentary and critique of economic metaphors More Heat Than Light). I stumbled upon this error (a term I use hesitatingly, for it assumes more than I am willing to) while recovering from last night’s excesses and re-reading some of the essays in Labyrinths. I have read most of the stories in the book dozens of times, but only a few of the essays. For example, I had forgotten how “Kafka and His Precursors” draws on the same themes as “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (a story I used to frame a recent paper on Foucault’s notion of discourse in his early work, which itself was framed in terms of a fictional Chinese encyclopedia featured in Borges’ “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”). Similarly, I had forgotten this lovely passage from “Avatars of the Tortoise”, my favorite essay growing up** and what likely led me to study mathematics in undergrad:

“The greatest magician (Novalis has memorably written) would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances. Would not this be our case?” I conjecture that this is so. We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

What a wonderful description of that set of sociological doctrines broadly termed “social constructionism”, and also of the constructionist project itself – the uncovering of crevices of unreason which let us see how we dreamt the world as firm, visible and durable in time. Or perhaps we cover crevices of reason imposed on an unreasonable world. I cannot say.

In undergrad, I majored in both Math and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. In spite of being a LACS major, I only really studied two topics under its jurisdiction (leaving me knowing nothing of, say, the history of South America): immigration and magical realism***. My senior year I had to write a mini-thesis in LACS. I was outside the door of the only Borges’ scholar on campus, waiting for him to arrive for office hours to pitch him my ideas for a thesis on Borges when something in me moved. I left the building and never returned to speak with him. I ended up writing a senior thesis on farm labor organizations and immigration from Latin America, which led me down the path to sociology where I find myself happily reunited with my dear friend, the trickster saint of libraries, Borges.

* Knowing Borges, and fellow fans of Borges, the idea of a “proper” location is somewhat misleading. For example, Chibka (1996) analyzes the significance of the discrepancies in various editions and translations of Borges’ “The Garden of the Forking Paths”. Specifically, the opening line: “On page 252 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I…” (in my edition anyway) has as many as 5 different page numbers in different versions (22, 212, 252, etc.). The passage Borges appears to be referencing appears in two books (one an update of the other) by Liddell Hart, neither of which has the name given in the Spanish version of the story (“La historia de la guerra europea”, or “The History of the European War”. Notably, Hart was never translated into Spanish, but this translation would not be faithful to the original English title.). So, different editions of Borges’ work reference different page numbers of a book by an inaccurate name – and none of which correspond to the page on which the paragraphs appear (which itself is two different pages, depending on the edition). For the details, and Chibka’s interpretations of all of this, I highly recommend The Library of Forking Paths (1996, Representations). Chibka argues that while no single version of the story “The Garden of the Forking Paths” resembles the book of the same name featured in that story (a book in which many different, contradictory narratives simultaneously co-exist, as in the theory of multiple universes), the set of all versions of the story complicates the linearity of time and narrative. I conjecture (how could I not conjecture?) that Borges must have left instructions with his conspirators to subtly alter his works over time. What gift could be greater to the scholars as yet unborn than the promise of an ever-shifting set of texts, sacred yet malleable?

** It occurs to me that if you wanted to raise children to be sympathetic to post-structuralism and post-modernism, giving them Borges to read before they hit age 10 would probably do the trick. It did for me anyway.

*** In giving me comments on a recent paper, another sociology graduate student suggested that I work to eliminate many of my asides and footnotes. He attributed the excess to the term-paper style of writing we are socialized into as graduate students. I have another, simpler explanation: I have been writing, inconsistently, Borges fan-fiction since the age of 10. Some of this writing takes the form of brief stories, or blog-posts. Other pieces take the form of essays, much as many of Borges’ greatest works of fiction were themselves essays, and vice-versa. I remember realizing as I read The Name of the Rose that Eco was himself an author of Borges fan-fiction. The line “The library is a labyrinth!” kind of gave it a way (plus the “Jorge de Burgos” blind librarian character. I mean, c’mon. That’s not even subtle).

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