Happy Birthday, HP Lovecraft!

Cthluhu Pie

HP Lovecraft was not a sociologist by any stretch. Rather, he was an author of tales of “eldritch horror”, practically inventing his own subgenre and being rewarded with the creation of the adjective “Lovecraftian.” The last couple decades have witnessed a renaissance of Lovecraftian works – from new works of fiction like Charles Stross’ Laundry Files to new works of food (see above) to board games, more board games, and even more board games.* I have even argued elsewhere that Lovecraft was an influence on Bob Dylan and his iconic song, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”** And that’s not even mentioning the (vulgar) South Park Cthulhu as Totoro mash-up.

More important to me – and to sociology, perhaps – was his influence on Jorge Luis Borges. Borges was also not a sociologist, but was an influential postmodern magical realist author whose insights are routinely cited by diverse academics from Goffman to Foucault to Collins to Olick to…

Knowing that Borges would later choose Lovecraft as one of his precursores, it’s easy to see the signs of influence. Here’s a bit from Lovecraft’s “The Tomb” that offers an unreliable narrator, but one that self-consciously denies the possibility of reliable narration at all and with it of an easy relationship between the real and the unreal:

In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism.

Common themes in Lovecraft – and Borges – include fragments of non-existent books (though Lovecraft’s books were usually more magical, while Borges often made magic out of the mundane) and professors or academics as key characters. Professors in the Lovecraftian universe are always unearthing Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, which dreadful consequences for their own sanity, and perhaps for humanity as a whole. Here, for example, is one lovely passage from “The Call of Cthulhu,” perhaps Lovecraft’s most iconic story:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Borges would write similar things in “Funes, the Memorious”, about a man who was cursed with the gift of perfect memory, and in “On Exactitude in Science”, about maps so perfect they were worthless.

So, with all that said, let’s wish HP Lovecraft a happy 123rd birthday. Thanks for giving us a reason to be upbeat about our own limitations. And… Ia! Ia! Cthluhu Fhtagn!

*Interestingly, the Lovecraftian board games skew heavily towards the modern cooperative variant of board game – us against the board – which feels fitting, given the nature of his stories (an incomprehensible evil is barely glimpsed and drives us mad as we strive to avert its impending destruction of the world).
**As noted there, this argument is completely and utterly made up.

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Borges and the Sharknado Problem

So, as anyone following the internet closely over the past few weeks probably knows, the Sci-Fi Channel (sorry, “SyFy”) made a new terrible monster movie, Sharknado. The movie was a huge hit on twitter, but didn’t do quite so well with actual viewers. The NYTimes story sheds a bit of light on this: “Mr. Ghuneim surmised that while all the Twitter traffic did spur some people to turn on the movie, others chatted about it without actually watching.” The buzz does seem to have helped repeat showings. But still, the amount of buzz Sharknado generated seems to be outsized compared to the amount of people actually watching it.

Let’s call this a “Borges Problem.” Jorge Luis Borges was a wonderful short story author, essayist and poet, but never wrote novels or lengthy books. In an introduction to his most celebrated collection, Ficciones, he explained the logic behind this choice:

The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.

We can apply the Borgesian insight to the problem of Sharknado. Why make a two-hour movie called Sharknado when all you need is the idea of a movie called Sharknado? And perhaps, a two-minute trailer? And given that such a movie is not needed to convey the full brilliance of Sharknado – and it is, indeed, brilliant – why spend two hours watching it when it is, wastefully, made?

And yet, had SyFy not actually aired the movie, would any of us have had the pleasure of not watching it? Or would its brilliance have gone unremarked? Curiouser and curiouser.

Borgesian Blog Quiz

Long-time readers will know that I love strange lists, especially lists of categories. In “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, Borges describes a (presumably fictional) Chinese encyclopedia:

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.*

Last night, I received an email with a similarly-formatted list, though one not quite as amusing:

a) items sold by weight or volume which are not in a package or container;
b) items sold in a coin-operated vending machine;
c) prepared food intended for immediate consumption;
e) unpackaged food items;
f) items which have a total weight of not more than 3 ounces, a total volume of not more than 3 cubic inches, and a total price of not more than 30 cents;
g) live plants;
h) live animals;
i) motor vehicles;
j) motor vehicle parts;
k) packages of 20 or fewer cigarettes;**

Without using Google, what do you think this list is a list of? As a hint, the email was from a close friend who is a lawyer in Michigan (Thanks Max!).

* A bonus round of Sociology trivia:
1. A famous social theorist begins a book by referencing Borges’ reference to the above encyclopedia. Can you name the author and the book? (Difficulty: Easy)
2. The list is also referenced in a review (in a reasonably prominent journal) of a famous social movements book. Can you name the book reviewed and the reviewer? (Difficulty: Hard)
** I have redacted list items d), l) and m) for the purposes of this quiz.

A Brief Borgesian Thought About Knowledge

It turns out that I absolutely love philosophers of science who like, but are somewhat critical, of science studies. I’ve recently read Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour, Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening, and I am now working my way through Helen Longino’s The Fate of Knowledge. All three are critics of the various excesses of science studies (especially the Strong Programme, everyone’s favorite bête noire), but all three recognize some of the theoretical and empirical insights of science studies as crucial to understanding science in action (as opposed to some sort of rational reconstruction of how science should have been or some normative program for creating an idealized science).

One of the interesting debates that Hacking and Longino both discuss is the issue of monism vs. pluralism – basically, is there one unified set of laws that coheres completely and, if known, would describe the whole world accurately, or are there multiple (potentially inconsistent) but “correct” ways of looking at the world depending on the scale you are looking at and the kind of problem you are trying to solve. I would have thought that philosophy of science would side strongly with monism, but both Hacking and Longino seem to embrace (or at least defend the possibility of) pluralism. Here’s a snippet from Hacking (1983: 219):

God did not write a Book of Nature of the sort that the old Europeans imagined. He wrote a Borgesian library, each book of which is as brief as possible, yet each book of which is inconsistent with every other. No book is redundant. For every book there is some humanly accessible bit of Nature such that that book, and no other, makes possible the comprehension, prediction and influencing of what is going on.

Another, equally nerdy way of putting this is.. there is no sufficient statistic for the entire universe smaller than the entire universe. For any given question, we may be able to find a stable relationship which can give us nice predictions and aid us in controlling specific phenomenon with relatively small amounts of information (e.g. the ideal gas law, PV=nRT), but these laws are domain specific, and so what may be sufficient information for one purpose (e.g. knowing nRT and V gives you P) will not be sufficient for some other kind of question.

What’s interesting to me about this formulation is that it foregrounds the process of problem-choice. That is, the problems we choose to investigate will determine which books in the Borgesian library we read and choose to emphasize. Knowledge of one set of books may or may not make learning another set easier. The world may seem incoherent because our shocking ability to gain some understanding in spite of the immense complexity of everything breaks down as we try to shove more and more phenomena into the same book. But how we choose our problems, how we decide what problems are important, are messy, problems that have been ignored by much of the philosophy of science – the context of justification being preferred over the context of discovery. A Borgesian view of the world foregrounds discovery (and the communal aspects of discovery at that), because we jettison the assumption of convergence on a single, book of Nature, and assume instead a collection of librarians wandering together through an endless library, discarding most books as worthless but holding onto a treasured view that give us insight into specific bits of the messy universe-library.

Traductor, Traidor (Or, a Borgesian Fork Too Far)

[Reader Beware – This post has nothing to do with sociology, economics or politics, and is also a bit silly.]
Dear Translator of The Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges,

I nearly bought your collection, which contains complete translations of Borges’ most important and best written works of fiction. Unfortunately, for you, before making my purchase, I examined your version of The Garden of the Forking Paths and was shocked, shocked!, to see its unfaithful deviations from the Yates translation in Labyrinths.

Let’s compare for a moment the last sentence, which I conveniently memorized in two languages (for just such an occasion):

(Spanish) “No sabe (nadie puede saber) mi innumerable contrición y cansancio.”

(Yates’ translation) “He does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness.”

A word for word translation, made possible by the relatively uncomplicated (albeit somewhat anomalous for Spanish) grammar and heavy use of Latinate words – like much of Borges’ writing.

Now, the Collected Fictions version:
(Hurley’s translation) “He does not know (no one can know) my endless contrition, and my weariness.”

At first glance, little has changed – an extra possessive pronoun was added, and a comma, which alters the pacing of the translation and suggest that the contrition, but not the weariness, was endless. Here we have an interpretation I disagree with, but one that is not baseless.

But wait, endless? Where did endless enter into this? Borges did not use that word or its synonyms – e.g. sin fin, interminable, sempiterno, eterno, etc. Borges used the word innumerable – without number. Why is this significant? The Garden of the Forking Paths is a story about time, and about the numberless forking roads we might take – “the various futures”. Various, without number, but not exhaustive. “Innumerable” evokes this entire train of thought, so essential to the “essay” half of this classic “cuento-ensayo” of Borges.

Endless evokes entirely the wrong notion of time – a temporality that is flat and pre-determined, the temporality of Newton, not of Heisenberg. Borges’ deity (the Librarian of Paradise) does not simply play dice with the world, but rather busts out of a copy of Risk with half a dozen worlds at once!

And so, dear translator, I must ask – why make this change? Are you, perhaps, attempting to subtly undermine the work of Yu Tsun’s illustrious ancestor, Ts’ui Pen, and of Borges himself? Hmm?

Respectfully, and wearily,
Dan

Institutions and Things

Selznick (1949, etc.) defines an institution* as something that has been infused with value beyond its rational purpose. We usually talk about institutions with respect to organizations or practices – arguing, for example, that the TVA had become institutionalized because its employees, beneficiaries, etc. actually gave a shit about what happened to it as the TVA. We can think of all sorts of organizations that have this feature – my high school, for example, universities, states, etc. I was thinking about the definition today because I was packing all my worldly belongings in the process of moving and I noticed that I took much, much more care with a small subset of things than I did with the rest. Playstation 2? Throw it in a box. The Super Nintendo? Wrap it lovingly, making sure each game is safe. So, I thought I’d write up a brief list of the things that are most institutionalized for me**. This post is oddly personal, so feel free to skip it if you don’t like reading that sort of thing.
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Borges the Blogger

Recently, Daniel Little over at Understanding Society posted some comments about Malthus as a blogger, e.g.:

I think that Thomas Malthus would have been very much at home in the blogosphere. He weighed in on the issues of the day, bringing careful logical analysis of economic theory to bear on the policy issues that were up for debate. And he was very interested in making the connection between economic principles and real empirical evidence.

Leaving aside for the moment whether or not that is an accurate description of the econoblogosphere*, Little’s discussion got me thinking about what other historical figures would have thrived in the crazy world of blogs.

And then an answer came to me: Jorge Luis Borges. Borges was an Argentine author of short stories and poetry whose work made constant reference to intertextuality (the idea that the meaning of a text is always in dialogue with the meaning of other texts, and only interpretable as such) and other post-modern ideas (like the arbitrariness of categorization, the relationship between descriptions of the world and the world itself, or the non-linearity of time and space). The connection between Borges’ ideas and the World Wide Web was noted early (for example, implementations of his heavily-footnoted “story-essays” in HTML felt very natural, like this one). But I think blogging is a medium even more suited to Borges than just the web. If we think of the world of blogs as a constant, tumultuous conversation between distant others, taking the form of short, pointed posts wavering between screed and academic inquiry, I think Borges fits in neatly.

For example, can’t you just imagine a Borgesian short story blog where each post was an independent story but which held together via self-reference and repeated themes to form a (constantly shifting) whole? An example, my favorite one paragraph Borges story:

On Exactitude in Science
… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

To summarize: I wonder what a modern Borgesian blog would look like, and I wager it would feel quite like the original**.

* A word I would describe as “clumsy and random” but which seems unlikely to go away soon.
** Not that Borges would have wanted anything to “feel like the original”, for what is an original but the first imperfect copy of an impossible form? See, for example, Chibka’s essay Borges’ Library of the Forking Paths, about how the various publications of the Garden of the Forking Paths contain slightly different citations. A gift, and a challenge, from Borges, to his inquisitive and excessively desirous of consistency public.

Mr. Tambourine Man: Enchanting Song or Warning of the Return of the Old Ones? A Textual Analysis

It is a little-known fact that Bob Dylan is a huge devotee of the prophetic works of the author H.P. Lovecraft. Knowledge of this esoteric trivia* led me to a surprising conclusion: Mr. Tambourine Man is not a song memorializing a long-dead musician, but rather a warning of the impending apocalyptic rise of the Old One Cthulhu. Before you say, Dan, clearly you have spent too much time reading fragments of the Necronomicon while avoiding memorizing the asymptotic variances of censored regression models**, let me explain using a close textual analysis of some key lyrics.

A caveat: A full analysis would require a deeper reading of Lovecraft’s work, as well as later followers, to be able to capture the subtleties of Dylan’s allegories. For example, it is unclear at several points if Mr. Tambourine Man is a cultist attempting to orchestrate Cthulhu’s return or merely a prophet, driven mad by visions of the Elder God and attempting to warn us through allegory. Or, perhaps most radically, is the Tambourine Man another name for the dreaded Cthulhu himself? I favor the middle interpretation, but welcome alternative interpretations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To the text!

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

Dylan’s tune is notable for beginning with the chorus, rather than the verse. This signals the listener to note how the chorus serves as a chorus, that is, a ritualized, repeated invocation. This reminds the alert listener of the Black Chorus and their chant, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” The closest English translation is, of course, “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” (cf. “Call of Cthulhu”, Chapter II). Adding weight to this interpretation, the chorus appears to be sung by a cult member (“…I’ll come followin’ you”), and one who is waiting for the appropriate moment, e.g. the stars aligning (“In the jingle jangle morning…”).

Having primed us to look for further explanations of the cult, Dylan goes on to make a most explicit reference to Cthulhu and his predicament:

Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.

In light of the first verse, the first and last lines become obvious: “Evenin’s empire” is the ancient empire of the Old Ones, which has “returned into sand” and is now buried beneath the sea. The “ancient empty street’s” of R’yleh are “too dead for dreaming”, which is, paradoxically, precisely what C’thulhu is doing (“…dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”) The middle part of the verse may be a reference to Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” more explicitly, or another story telling of an encounter between a weary traveler, lost at sea, struck paralyzed with awe upon seeing the massive gates of R’yleh. The blindness may be metaphorical or physical, the text is ambiguous.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship,
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin’.
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.

The first line continues the reference to the fateful voyage of Gustaf Johansen, while the rest of the verse refers to the narrator’s own experiences with Cthulhu and his minions. Having been exposed (“My senses have been stripped..”), the narrator is now ready to follow Mr. Tambourine Man – but to what end? To bring about the return of Cthulhu? Or to prevent it, and thus prolong humanity’s existence?

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun,
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’.
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind,
I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re
Seein’ that he’s chasing.

The madness of those who have seen Cthulhu’s visage is not directed at any Earthly entity (“It’s not aimed at anyone…”). The narrator then explains the purpose of the Tambourine Man, who is chasing a shadow (the same shadow that the narrator, and the presumptive audience, has seen, the shadow cast by the Elder Gods on the world of the living). But why does he chase this shadow? To resurrect it, or to keep it in its prison?

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Finally, the narrator hopes for a peaceful slumber. Driven mad by visions (“Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves/ The haunted frightened trees…”), no longer in full possession of his faculty after his encounter with Cthulhu (“With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves”) the narrator hopes only to “forget about today until tomorrow”. This verse is sung in a carefree style, as if the narrator were speaking of an innocent desire to forget his worries, sing and dance to the tune of a carefree wandered. As this analysis has shown, nothing could be further from the truth. The narrator is living a life of madness punctuated by intermittent moments of clarity. Only the peace of death, or giving in to the mindless ravings that often overtake him, will allow him to be free of his chtonic burdens.

Thoughts?

* It is likely that this fact’s obscurity is related to me having just made it up.
** A true but irrelevant statement.

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).

Making My Day, One Borges Story At A Time

Ran across this video on YouTube today which consists of some (ir)relevant images timed to the reading of one of my favorite Borges’ stories by Borges himself*. Here’s the video and an English translation of the story below:


From A Universal History of Infamy:

“Of Exactitude in Science

…In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J. A. Suarez Miranda”

* It occurs to me that it is likely the the reading is by another, some random fan. I do not know Borges’ voice well (although, in another sense, I know his voice all too well). And yet, I do not think it matters. “O Destino de Borges, tal vez no más extraño que el tuyo…”