Tag Archives: Literature

Borgesian Fields

Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea, 1996, oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal, and powdered paint on burlap, 191.1 × 561.3 cm. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, prophecies are recast, ghosts live in blades, and the constraints of time are broken. Among this magic, which is distinctly of the era of capitalism, stands an understated image of silent plains. A narrator tells us that one could be like any other: “No two mountain peaks are alike, but anywhere on earth the plains are one and the same.”1 The narrator travels to the future, where he speaks to a nameless, elderly man. The nameless man looks upon the plains shortly before he chooses his own death: “The man now turned his back to me and looked out the windows. Outside, the plains were white with silent snow and moonlight.”2 A fog of ambivalent catastrophe hovers. For whom or what was civilization? The story’s future setting does not cast off the troubles of our moment. This failed escape into the future is accentuated by that society’s abandonment of excursions into space: “‘It’s been hundreds of years since we have done any of that traveling about—though it was undoubtedly admirable. We found we could never escape the here and now.”3

In “The South,” a character ventures out of the city in order to enter an “older and more stable world,”4 to ameliorate the strain of being a Modern, for whom the passage of time is a reminder of the task of history. The character instead seeks to live in the ever-now that animals inhabit, outside of human time. Traveling into the country, he seeks the “fact of being,”5 but Nature does not simply reveal itself: “All was vast, but at the same time intimate and somehow secret. […] Dahlmann accepted the walk as a small adventure. The sun had sunk below the horizon now, but one final splendor brought a glory to the living yet silent plains before they were blotted out by night. Less to keep from tiring himself than to make those things last, Dahlmann walked slowly, inhaling with grave happiness the smell of clover.”6 Dahlmann mistakes animal being as a desirable form of freedom, but the silence of the plains reveals the onlooker’s apprehension. He cannot recreate magic, but he must create his own belief in magic—a path which reason maddeningly blocks.

The plains are silent and homogeneous, but they spoke in the past, each with its own language. This mute presence reflects an irrevocable transformation within humanity’s consciousness. Nature had greeted humans as they expected—mythologically. Borges’s characters express something of this lack: “There is an hour just at evening when the plains seem on the verge of saying something; they never do, or perhaps they do—eternally—though we don’t understand it, or perhaps we do understand but what they say is as untranslatable as music…”7 Nature, which became a category through the development of society now riven through with contradiction, recedes beyond the grasp of reason. A symptom of this reification is anxiety about Nature’s silence. Without a theory that could give historical meaning to this anxiety, the trajectory of Spirit falls into question.

1. Jorges Luis Borges, “A Weary Man’s Utopia,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 460.
2. Ibid., 464.
3. Ibid., 463.
4. Borges, “The South,” in Collected Fictions, 176.
5. Ibid., 176.
6. Ibid., 177.
7. Borges, “The End,” in Collected Fictions, 170.

Fredric Jameson on Narrative at UChicago

Fredric Jameson onstage with Leela Gandhi

Fredric Jameson onstage with Leela Gandhi

A few days ago I visited my old neighborhood of Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago. While walking I happened to recognize an acquaintance who asked if I’d be going to see Fredric Jameson talk in mere minutes. Shocked that I hadn’t known about this earlier, I decided that I really had no choice but to go see one of the greatest thinkers alive today.

Jameson, among others, had been invited to the University of Chicago for the multi-day conference “Forms of Fiction: The Novel in English.” The main focus of the conference was an examination of four novels: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Having not read all of them, I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to follow all of Jameson’s talk, which turned out to be on Ulysses among other ideas, but my worry was assuaged by his handling of the material. Jameson unknowingly had made a case for me to read Ulysses along with giving me a bit more faith in the novel as a worthwhile form of reflection of the world.

Out of Steam in Infinite Jest

Detail of cover of 2006 paperback edition of Infinite Jest

Detail of cover of 2006 paperback edition of Infinite Jest

After roughly two years of occasionally (but increasingly less often) picking up David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996), I think it’s time to just give up on trying to finish it. It’s not that the novel’s prose is too dense or complex, etc., but rather that I simply don’t care anymore. I can sort of see the interrelation of the various story lines, but it’s become so tiring continuing to read seemingly endless new scenes about these various characters. For what it’s worth, I was on page 554 of the paperback edition. If anyone who’s finished the book and thinks the second half of the novel redeems my current impasse, please let me know. Perhaps I was only a couple pages away from a great turning point.

This, of course, could be a prime example of what Wallace described as the problem of boredom in the contemporary moment. I’d recommend watching Wallace’s interview on German TV station ZDF for more on his ideas about the problem with boredom.

Literature and Philosophy

After considering myself a student of literary studies for many years, I now feel strange under that categorization. Lately I’ve been more excited about potential philosophical thoughts brought about through literature than the literature itself. Clearly it is not as definite a distinction as that, but judging from the short stack of books I’m reading and the presentation I’m preparing for next week in Vancouver, I would appear to be more interested in philosophy.