01 August 2015

Rachel & Leah in Purgatory

 
From the beginning to the end of last school year, I met with a group once a week to discuss Dante's Purgatorio canto by canto. We had some very learned and insightful readers participating in that group, and there was a lot of really challenging discussion. At one point, we paused in some perplexity over a passage in Canto 27. While resting and admiring the stars, Dante tells us:

Thus ruminating, as I gazed at these,
sleep overtook me, sleep which many a time
brings tidings of a thing before it sees
The light; for in that hour when Venus shines
upon the mountainside her orient gleam,
ever enkindled by the fire of love,
A young and lovely lady in a dream
appeared to me upon the meadowland,
gathering flowers, and she said in song,
'Let anyone who may demand my name
know that I am Leah, and I go to make
myself a garland by my lovely hands.
Here I adorn myself for the delight
I will enjoy when looking in my glass.
My sister Rachel never leaves that sight
But gazes in her glass the whole day through.
She for her lovely eyes, I for my hands--
her yearning is to see, and mine to do.' (ll. 91-108) [1]

The allusion here is to Genesis 29:17 (LXX): 'And the eyes of Lea were weak. But Rachel was beautiful in appearance, and exceedingly fair in countenance.' But what was the significance of this verse to Dante?

Anthony Esolen's endnote on this passage says: 'Medieval exegetes saw in Rachel and Leah an allegory of the contemplative and the active life, inferring from the weakness of Leah's eyes a keenness of vision in Rachel, and inferring from Leah's fecundity a propensity for the practical virtues.' [2] Unfortunately, Esolen doesn't cite any examples of these exegetes. But while glancing through Richard Gamble's anthology of readings in education, The Great Tradition, I came across just such a reading in an excerpt from St Gregory the Great's homilies on Ezekiel. [3] I cite the original source, translated by Theodosia Gray and published by the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies:

10. These two ways of life were, as was also said before us, symbolized by Blessed Jacob's two wives, viz. Leah and Rachel. For Leah is interpreted as meaning laborious and Rachel truly as a sheep, or a manifest beginning. Then the active life is laborious because it is fatiguing in work, but the simple contemplative strives also to see its beginning, viz. Him Who said: 'I am the beginning, for which reason I speak to you' (Jh. 8:25). Then Blessed Jacob had indeed desired Rachel but in the night accepted Leah because all who are turned to the Lord have desired the contemplative life and seek the quiet of the Eternal Kingdom, but must first in the night of this present life perform the works which they can, sweat with effort, i.e. accept Leah in order that they afterward rest in the arms of Rachel, in order to see the beginning. Then Rachel was a seer, and sterile, Leah truly purblind, but fertile, Rachel beautiful and barren, because the contemplative life is splendid in the spirit but, whereas it seeks to rest in silence, it does not produce sons from preaching. It sees and does not bring forth, because in zeal for its quiet it is less kindled in the collection of others, and does not suffice to reveal to others by preaching how much it inwardly perceives. Leah truly is purblind and fertile because the active life, while it is engaged in labor, sees less but when, now by word now by example, it kindles its neighbors to follow suit, it produces many sons in the good work. And if it does not avail to stretch its mind in contemplation yet it is able to beget followers from that which it does outwardly. [4]

All of this, of course, very easily explains the contrasts in lines 107-8--'She for her lovely eyes, I for my hands-- / her yearning is to see, and mine to do'--where eyes/seeing correspond to the contemplative gaze, and hands/doing to the works of the active life.

But what of the reference to a mirror? For one thing, if the gaze is associated with contemplation and therefore Rachel, why does Leah speak to Dante of eventually 'looking in my glass' (l. 104)? For that matter, why is even Leah gazing at 'her glass the whole day through' (l. 106)? At least one of our Dante Club members thought it suggestive of vanity. Esolen at least had nothing to say about it.

My guess was stimulated by the memory of a talk I once heard Fr Justin Sinaites give, and about which I once blogged here. Fr Justin made reference to something he'd read in Fr Andrew Louth's work about the Fathers' understanding of mirrors, and I made the effort to try to track down the passage to which he was likely alluding. I found it in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys:

[In Contra Gentes, St Athanasius the Great] speaks of the soul 'being a mirror in which it can see the image of the Father' (CG 8). And later in the same work he says: 'So when the soul has put off every stain of sin with which it is tinged, and keeps pure only what is in the image, then when this shines forth it can truly contemplate as in a mirror the Word, the image of the Father, and in him meditate on the Father, of whom the Savior is the image' (CG 34). This idea of the soul as a mirror which, when pure can reflect the image of God seems to be original to Athanasius. (There are faint hints of it in Theophilus and Plotinus, but nothing as clear and definitive as we find in Athanasius.)

...[W]hen the Fathers spoke of the soul reflecting the image of God like a mirror they were using an analogy to explain how the soul is the image of God. SO self-knowledge involves knowledge of God, because God has made the soul to reflect His image. The idea of the soul as a mirror reflecting God is thus for the Fathers...a metaphor that sees the soul as a real, though dependent, image of God and also suggests that this image of God in the soul is perceived in self-knowledge.

So Athanasius' metaphor of the soul as a mirror in which God is reflected suggests that there is a real similarity between the soul and God, and preserves the notion that self-knowledge is itself a way of knowing God. But it does this without suggesting that there is a natural kinship between the soul and God. There is no ontological continuity between the image in the mirror and that of which it is the image; so, in the case of the soul reflecting the image of God, this similarity discloses a much deeper dissimilarity at the level of substance. On this understanding, theopoiesis, divinization, will not mean the rediscovery of any kinship between the soul and God, but rather that, as it is purified, the soul more accurately reflects the image of God, or becomes more truly that image. [5]

I don't know whether Dante would have been familiar with some translation of St Athanasius's text, or whether he might have taken this image from some later Father, but it strikes me that this is precisely what is going on in Purgatorio 27. Recall again lines 103-6:
 
Here I adorn myself for the delight
I will enjoy when looking in my glass.
My sister Rachel never leaves that sight
But gazes in her glass the whole day through.
 
I believe that Leah is adorning herself by purifying her soul or heart through the practice of the virtues so that she can behold God, whereas Rachel has already begun the contemplation of His image by means of her 'lovely eyes'.
 
 
[1] Dante Alighieri, Purgatory, tr. Anthony Esolen (NY: Modern Library, 2004), p. 295.
 
[2] Ibid., p. 481.
 
[3] The passage is found in Richard E. Gamble, ed., The Great Tradition: Classic Readings On What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008), p. 239.
 
[4] Theodosia Gray, tr., The Homilies of Saint Gregory the Great On the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, ed. Presbytera Juliana Cownie (Etna, CA: CTOS, 1990), pp. 175-6.
 
[5] Fr Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), pp. 79-80.

31 July 2015

Labour in Ecclesiasticus

 
A few years ago, I found myself in the position of having to teach a couple of very gifted 9th-graders a book I'd never read before: Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. At the time I was on the cusp of rethinking at least a few of my conservative beliefs, but that story is for another time. From my own perspective, the current topic actually only ends up being political in a roundabout way.

At one point Burke is responding to a statement by the chancellor of France, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, to the effect 'that all occupations are honourable'. Burke responds:

If he meant only, that no honest employment was disgraceful, he would not have gone beyond the truth. But in asserting, that any thing is honourable, we imply some distinction in its favour. The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person--to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but we are at war with nature. [1]

Now the interesting thing here to me was not Burke's sentiment, as striking as we may now find it, but a footnote that he apparently meant to support his statements. There, he quotes the Authorised Version translation of 'Ecclesiasticus, chap. xxxviii', verse 24, 25, and 27:

'The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: and he that hath little business shall become wise.' -- 'How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad; that driveth oxen; and is occupied in their labours; and whose talk is of bullocks?'

'So every carpenter and work-master that laboureth night and day.' &c. [2]

Unfortunately, while I had dipped into 'Ecclesiasticus', also known as the Wisdom of Sirach, or just Sirach, on occasion, I had never read the whole thing through and had certainly never come across this passage. But the subject of learning, work, and leisure was one that interested me and continues to do so, and I really had to go look up the whole passage. As beautiful as the KJV is, I shall quote from my chief reading translation of the Deutero-canonical books, that of Edgar J. Goodspeed, beginning at 38:24 and continuing through the rest of the chapter.

A scribe attains wisdom through the opportunities of leisure [scholes],
And the man who has little business to do can become wise.
How can the man who holds the plow become wise,
Who glories in handling the ox-goad?
Who drives oxen, and guides them at their work,
And whose discourse is with the sons of bulls?
He sets his mind on turning his furrows,
And his anxiety is about fodder for heifers.
It is so with every craftsman and builder,
Who keeps at work at night as well as by day.
Some cut carved seals,
And elaborate variety of design;
Another puts his mind on painting a likeness,
And is anxious to complete his work.
It is so with the smith sitting by his anvil,
And expert in working in iron;
The smoke of the fire reduces his flesh,
And he exerts himself in the heat of the furnace.
He bends his ear to the sound of the hammer,
And his eyes are on the pattern of the implement.
He puts his mind on completing his work,
And he is anxious to finish preparing it.
It is so with the potter, as he sits at his work,
And turns the wheel with his foot;
He is constantly careful about his work,
And all his manufacture is by measure;
He will shape the clay with his arm,
And bend its strength with his feet;
He puts his mind on finishing the glazing,
And he is anxious to make his furnace clean.

All these rely on their hands;
And each one is skilful in his own work;
Without them, no city can be inhabited,
And men will not live in one or go about in it.
But they are not sought for to advise the people,
And in the public assembly they do not excel.
They do not sit on the judge's seat,
And they do not think about the decision of lawsuits;
They do not utter instruction or judgment,
And they are not found using proverbs.
Yet they support the fabric of the world [alla ktisma aionos sterisousin],
And their prayer is in the practice of their trade
[he deesis auton en ergasia technes]. [3]

While Sirach certainly seems to support Burke's belief that manual labourers, craftsmen, and tradesmen lack the leisure to attain the necessary learning to be of value in public affairs and decisions, the most striking aspect of the passage to me was not the elabourate underscoring of this point. Instead, two things caught my attention.

First, the emphasis Sirach places on the attention and care with which these men do their work. The very thing that to his mind, and Burke's, prevents them devoting care to wisdom, learning, and public affairs, is their intense devotion to their labours. One does not get the sense that these men are naturally or constitutionally incapable of doing the work of the learned, rather, they apply themselves to other work with the same rapt attention that a scribe gives to instruction, judgment, and proverbs. Indeed, it is the same attention that Simone Weil--surely in agreement with the Fathers--has called the chief characteristic of prayer: 'The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.' [4]

Second, just as the workers themselves are depicted with surprising sympathy, so their work is not denigrated either. The importance of such work is not given the same emphasis as the devotion of the workers, but we see it in two verses, thirty-two and thirty-four:

Without them, no city can be inhabited,
And men will not live in one or go about in it.

Yet they support the fabric of the world
And their prayer is in the practice of their trade.

In the words of Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, 'Even as he contrasts the varying labors of the scribe and craftsman, however, we don't find in Sirach the signs of disrespect and disparagement obvious in other authors who elaborated the same contrast....Sirach's respectful tone is closer to Hesiod's Works & Days.' [5] In his introduction to the Deutero-canonical books, David deSilva agrees:

[The Egyptian wisdom book] Satire on the Trades, earlier attributed to Duauf but more recently ascribed to Kheti (Pritchard, ed., 1950: 432), was probably used in some form (or, at least, a work that included essentially the same content) by Ben Sira as a resource for 38:24-39:11. Both speak of the importance of leisure for learning the scribal arts, the arduousness of a variety of occupations involving manual labor, and the greater honor that comes to the scribe. Ben Sira's descriptions of the crafts of the farmer, smith, and potter include many specifics found in the older, Egyptian text, which, however, includes many more occupations in its litany and is much more negative about the value of these people and the quality of their life. Ben Sira exhibits here a considerably greater degree of respect for manual laborers and artisans than does his source (see 38:32, 34). [6]
 
Indeed, I would argue that 'respect' is too weak a word for these two statements, as terse as they may be. Sirach has in fact told us that the man who works with his hands is fundamental to human civilisation and culture, and furthermore, that his work is his prayer (deesis, or 'supplication'). [7] The significance of verse 32 is that the scribe (who is ultimately the theologian), whose work Sirach goes on to praise as being higher, cannot do what he does without the labourer, whose toil furnishes the leisure that the scribe requires (v. 24). The same observation can of course be applied to all those whose vocation is in the 'liberal arts'.
 
But as important as this insight is, particularly for practitioners of the liberal arts who may have a tendency to look down their noses at the so-called servile arts, it still may leave the labourer himself a bit in the cold. One thinks perhaps of the milkman, Tevye, who longs to be able to study Scripture and discuss it with the learned men. It seems to me that however much we may need to recall the utility of work, its service of some end that lies outside itself, we find in verse 34 an affirmation of work that joins it directly to the chief end of man, thus giving it its fullest possible meaning.
 
Ultimately, however, the deesis of the hands must be joined to the deesis of the mind. Work is sanctified most fully when it is joined with the prayer of the heart. As St Basil the Great writes:
 
For prayer and psalmody, however, as also, indeed for some other duties, every hour is suitable, that, while our hands are busy at their tasks, we may praise God sometimes with the tongue (when this is possible or, rather, when it is conducive to edification); or, if not, with the heart, at least, in psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles, as it is written [Col. 3:16]. Thus, in the midst of our work can we fulfill the duty of prayer, giving thanks to Him who has granted strength to our hands for performing our tasks and cleverness to our minds for acquiring knowledge, and for having provided the materials, both that which is in the instruments we use and that which forms the matter of the arts in which we may be engaged, praying that the work of our hands may be directed toward its goal, the good pleasure of God.
 
Thus we acquire a recollected spirit--when in every action we beg from God the success of our labors and satisfy our debt of gratitude to Him who gave us the power to do the work, and when, as has been said, we keep before our minds the aim of pleasing Him. If this is not the case, how can there be consistency in the words of the Apostle bidding us to 'pray without ceasing' [I Thess. 5:17], with those others, 'we worked night and day' [2 Thess. 3:8]. [8]
 
 
[1] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France & On the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event, ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 138.
 
[2] Ibid., p. 138.
 
[3] The Apocrypha: An American Translation, tr. Edgar J. Goodspeed (NY: Vintage, 1989), pp. 297-8.
 
[4] Simone Weil, 'Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God', The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008), p. 589.
 
[5] Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, Wise Lives: Orthodox Christian Reflections on 'The Wisdom of Sirach' (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar, 2009), p. 130.
 
[6] David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, & Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), p. 168.

[7] The Authorised Version of course appears to miss completely the significance of deesis in this verse, rendering the line rather misleadingly as 'all their desire is in the work of their craft'.

[8] St Basil the Great, Ascetic Works, Vol. 9 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, tr. Sr M. Monica Wagner, CSC [NY: Fathers of the Church, 1950], p. 308.

16 July 2015

Marginalia, No. 3



'If the heart of one friend is open to another, the truth glows between them, the good enfolds them, and each becomes a mainstay to his companion, a helpmate in his endeavor, and a potent factor in his attaining his wish. There is nothing surprising in this: souls ignite one another, minds fertilize one another, tongues exchange confidences; and the mysteries of this human being, a microcosm in this macrocosm, abound and spread.' [1]
 
That is the 10th-century Islamic philosopher Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani--who, like Socrates, 'wrote little or nothing himself' [2]--speaking to his disciples in the Muqabasat, or 'Borrowings', of Abu'l-Hayyan al-Tawhidi, quoted from an excerpt of Joel L. Kraemer's Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam found in Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, edited by Robert Irwin.
 
It's a powerful classical conception of friendship, on which of course there is a tradition of philosophy beginning with the ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle, and running through Cicero, and finding beautiful Christian treatments in St John Cassian's Conferences and Aelred of Rievaulx's Spiritual Friendship. Since this is only a marginalium and not a proper post, I won't go to the trouble of walking downstairs and finding my new volume on Islamic philosophy to see if there are any comments on these figures in there. But I will note that Irwin writes: 'Tawhidi and his teachers and friends were interested in Greek philosophy and Sufism, and in reconciling Sufism with Neoplatonism.' [175] I suppose then that it is at least very likely that Abu Sulayman would have been familiar with Aristotle's thoughts on the subject of friendship, whatever else he may have read.
 
The image above is from a manuscript of the Rasa'il Ikhwan al-Safa dating from 1287 AD (Suleimaniye Library, Istanbul).
 
 
[1] Robert Irwin, ed., Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature (NY: Anchor, 2001), p. 177.
 
[2] Ibid., p. 174.
 
[3] Ibid., p. 175.

10 July 2015

Marginalia, No. 2




Engagement in the church's practices puts us in a position where we may recognize and participate in the work of God's grace in the world.
 
[Practices] become arenas in which something is done to us, in us, and through us that we could not of ourselves do, that is beyond what we do.
 
The practices of Christian faith turn out in the end not primarily to be practices, efforts. They turn out to be places in the contours of our personal and communal lives where a habitation of the Spirit is able to occur. And it is this that is the source of their power and meaning. [1]

This is Craig Dykstra, in Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices, quoted by Glenn E. Sanders of Oklahoma Baptist University in 'How Christian Practices Help to Engage Students Morally and Spiritually: Testimony from a Western Civilization Course', his contribution to Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, edited by David I. Smith and James K.A. Smith.

It strikes me as a good, evangelical-friendly way to explain the effect of 'good works' that avoids the opprobrium that term acquires for those who are quick to smell 'works righteousness'. In fact, it also seems to apply well to the 'practice' of the Mysteries or Sacraments. This may be significant for evangelicals too, since I was baffled several years ago to hear one of them object to the idea that Baptism had any importance to salvation since it was a 'work' that we did rather than an act of God. In Dykstra's terms, the Mysteries may be something that we practice, but they are nevertheless 'done to us, in us, and through us', they are something 'we could not of ourselves do, that is beyond what we do'.


[1] Qtd. in Glenn E. Sanders, 'How Christian Practices Help to Engage Students Morally & Spiritually: Testimony from a Western Civilization Course', Teaching & Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, ed. David I. Smith & James K.A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 161.

09 July 2015

Marginalia, No. 1

 
 
I had toyed some time ago with the idea of doing some shorter posts featuring quotations from my reading, with less commentary and original input than has always been typical at Logismoi. It would be something, in fact, rather like the 'Marginalia' I have long admired over at The New Psalmanazar. I have been less than satisfied with simply posting quotations on Facebook, and partly to make some fun use of my new computer, I have decided that now is the time to begin. I hope I won't be reproached for being entirely unoriginal and also referring to these posts as 'Marginalia'. I mean, the Bible says there's 'nothing new under the sun' anyway.
 
So, to kick things off:
 

Ibn al-Alkami  The last vizier of Baghdad, who owned one of the largest libraries of that city. The library, which contained 10,000 books, was destroyed during the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, when every one of Baghdad's thirty-six libraries also perished. [1]
  
This is one of the entries in 'An Annotated Guide to the Historical and Literary References in The Name of the Rose' (which novel I am rereading so as to discuss it with students this Autumn), located in The Key to 'The Name of the Rose', Including Translations of All Non-English Passages by Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White. [2]
 
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit it, as I always have been about those things that most fire my imagination, but I've recently been quite taken by the 'Orientalist' bug. I won't go into the details (although I think it coincided with reading some of the stories of Borges), but it has given me a new interest in Arab references everywhere, including those in Eco's novel.
 
But obviously it didn't take Orientalism to get me to sit up and take notice of this. The destruction of thirty-six mediaeval libraries, including at least one holding 10,000 books, was enough to do it. It reminds me of an anecdote I read last year in Jaroslav Pelikan's The Idea of the University: A Reexamination:
 
When the armies of the German Empire invaded Belgium in August 1914, one of their first victims was the University of Louvain, established by a papal charter of 9 December 1425. The burning of the university library cost the world of scholarship three hundred thousand books and more than a thousand original manuscripts (including the university's charter from 1425), and it has ever since symbolized the triumph of the irrational over the rational. As one historian has told the story, 'In Brussels the Rector of the University, Monseigneur de Becker, whose rescue was arranged by the Americans, described the burning of the Library. Nothing was left of it; all was in ashes. When he came to the word "library"--bibliothèque--he could not say it. He stopped, tried again, uttered the first syllable, "La bib--" and unable to go on, bowed his head on the table and wept.' [15-6]
 
The image above shows scholars at an Abbasid library, and was made in Baghdad in 1237, twenty-two years before the destruction.
 
 
[1] Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, & Robert J. White, The Key to 'The Name of the Rose', Including Translations of All Non-English Passages (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1999), p. 67.
 
[2] Unfortunately, I'm not sure where the reference to Ibn al-Alkami is in Eco's text.
 
[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1992), pp. 15-6.

29 May 2015

My Journey to Borges


I think I can confidently say that I first encountered Borges through William Poundstone’s delightful book, Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles & the Frailty of Knowledge. Knowing of my youthful interest in math and the logic puzzles of Lewis Caroll, my dad introduced me to Labyrinths of Reason when I was probably 12 or 13. Although for some reason I never followed it up until years later, I never forgot Poundstone’s description of Borges’s ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’: 

The best paradoxes raise questions about what kinds of contradictions can occur--what species of impossibilities are possible. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), whose work appeals to all lovers of paradox, explored many such questions in his short stories. In ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, he describes an encyclopedia, supposedly from another world, created as an elaborate hoax by a group of scholars. Borges’s scholars can even imagine the paradoxes of their fictitious world; so alien is the thinking of ‘Tlön’ that their paradoxes are commonplaces to us. [1] 

Poundstone goes on to quote the Tlönian paradox of the ‘nine copper coins’. I will not reproduce it here, but of course the whole story is worth reading. Poundstone comes back to it in Chapter 10, ‘Meaning: Twin Earth’, where he discusses the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. There he observes: 

The Voynich manuscript is reminiscent of (and conceivably inspired) Borges’s short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’. In the story an eccentric millionaire financed a conspiracy of scholars to write an encyclopedia of the imaginary world ‘Tlön’. The first drafts were in English, but the plan was to translate the encyclopedia into Tlön’s (equally imaginary) language and calligraphy, creating a wholly inscrutable work. [2]  
There are other references to Borges in Poundstone--the essay ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ on pp. 44-5; another essay, ‘Avatars of the Tortoise’, on p. 135; the story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ on pp. 160-1; and, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Extraordinary Tales on pp. 258-9. But I am less certain I actually read these parts as a youth. 

My next encounter with Borges was my freshman year of college. I had my first bookstore job at a tiny little used shop run by a late friend of mine, Bob Cowden, and while I can’t pin it down, at some point during my stint at that shop I read and fell in love with Umberto Eco’s magnificent The Name of the Rose. Of course, nothing about the reference to Borges in Poundstone, even as well as I remembered it, came to me when reading of the blind librarian, Jorge da Burgos, zealous to prevent anyone from reading Aristotle’s lost work on comedy. But when I reached Eco’s ‘Postscript’, printed at the back of the trade paperback translation I read, I found this (spoiler alert): 

The constructed world will then tell us how the story must proceed. Everyone asks me why my Jorge, with his name, suggests Borges, and why Borges is so wicked. But I cannot say. I wanted a blind man who guarded a library (it seemed a good narrative idea to me), and library plus blind man can only equal Borges, also because debts must be paid. And, further, it was through Spanish commentaries and illumination that the Apocalypse influenced the entire Middle Ages. But when I put Jorge in the library I did not yet know he was the murderer. He acted on his own, so to speak. [3] 

I suppose it is possible that it had only been five years since I’d first learned of this Borges from Poundstone, but when I found him in Eco I definitely knew him already as the Argentine author of ‘Tlön’, about an encyclopedia. 

Maybe this was why I found him memorable. I had been a lover of encyclopedias since I could first read. Maybe even longer. I had grown up with 1940s or 50s editions of the World Book Encyclopedias--which I used to pore over exhaustively, following the suggestions for additional articles on a given topic--at the homes of both sets of grandparents. My own parents had a Funk & Wagnalls, which, incidentally, was the first source I consulted to learn about the Orthodox Church (that edition had a fine article by the late Fr John Meyendorff). One of my most treasured possessions now is an eleventh edition Encyclopaedia Britannica--an encyclopedia that Jaroslav Pelikan once called ‘easy...to romanticize’. [4] I can’t help but think that this connection of Borges, not just with libraries, but with an ‘imaginary encyclopedia’, is part of what caused him to stick in my mind. 

I nearly forget to mention that within 6 or 7 years of reading Eco, in Thessaloniki, I became very dear friends with a Greek-Italian-American graduate of St John’s College Santa Fe named Philip Navarro (you’ll find him credited in one way or another in a number of English-language Orthodox publications). Sadly, I have found that dear Philip is a difficult person to stay in touch with, but the years that we spent either in the same city or at least talking frequently on the phone were sufficient for the fellow to acquire his own real estate in my mind. Anyway, this is relevant because Philip was a huge fan of Borges, and made reference to him every once in a while. I sheepishly admitted that I had not actually read him, but I knew that the day must come eventually. 

Nevertheless, it could only have been within about the last 10 years that I finally got round to purchasing something of Borges’s--a Book-of-the-Month Club edition of Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. And it was probably a few more years after the purchase that I finally read my first actual Borges story, ‘Deutsches Requiem’ (a powerful piece vividly depicting the psychology of an educated Nazi prison camp guard--read it while listening to Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem and try not to weep). It was a few years more before I read any further into Labyrinths

In the end it was the brief little pieces, not quite fiction, not quite essays, that Borges calls ‘parables’ that really drew me in. As an example, I shall post perhaps the briefest one in Labyrinths, ‘Parable of Cervantes & the Quixote’: 

Tired of his Spanish land, an old soldier of the king sought solace in the vast geographies of Ariosto, in that valley of the moon where the time wasted by dreams is contained and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalbán.
In gentle mockery of himself, he imagined a credulous man who, perturbed by his reading of marvels, decided to seek prowess and enchantment in prosaic places called El Toboso or Montiel.
Vanquished by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village in the year 1614. He was survived but a short time by Miguel de Cervantes.
For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed one, the whole scheme of the work consisted in the opposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry, the ordinary everyday world of the seventeenth century.
They did not suspect that the years would finally smooth away that discord, they did not suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s lean figure would be, for posterity, no less poetic than the episodes of Sinbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.
For in the beginning of literature is the myth, and in the end as well. [5] 

Obviously, this is quite simple. It is the briefest observation about Cervantes. It might perhaps even have been stated by someone else in a much less interesting way--in Cervantes’s day, his own time and place were not terribly romantic, whereas 400 years later they are practically the stuff of legend. But in Borges’s hands, it becomes something that awakens the imagination, enchanting the world itself and the books that tell us of it. 

Just a few weeks ago I finally purchased Borges’s Collected Fictions--as I understand it, his complete fiction--and I’ve begun working on it. I did finally read ‘Tlön’ as well as another one, which I think Philip must have told me about, called ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’. I’ve read nearly all of the short pieces originally published in the 1960 volume, The Maker. I just completed Borges’s homage to H.P. Lovecraft, ‘There Are More Things’. I’ve read a wonderful essay of Borges on Dante, ‘The Divine Comedy’, [6] as well as two lectures by Eco on Borges: ‘Between La Mancha & Babel’ and ‘Borges & My Anxiety of Influence’, both in On Literature. [7] 

I realise all of this is kind of superficial, and not likely to be of much interest to anyone who doesn’t know me. I plan to do a second Borges post wherein I will explore a couple of short pieces in a little more depth. 


[1] William Poundstone, Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles & the Frailty of Knowledge (NY: Anchor, 1988), p. 19. 

[2] Ibid., p. 195. 

[3] Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, Including the Author’s Postscript, tr. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt, 1994), p. 515. 

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1984), p. 4. 

[5] Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby (NY: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1996), p. 242. 

[6] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Divine Comedy’, tr. Eliot Weinberger, The Poet’s Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses, ed. Peter S. Hawkins & Rachel Jacoff (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), pp. 118-35. 

[7] Umberto Eco, On Literature, tr. Martin McLaughlin (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2004), pp. 104-17, 118-35.

25 May 2015

'Abd al-Rahmān's Palm Tree: An Andalusian Poem


In Jorge Luis Borges's enchanting little story, 'Averroës' Search', about the mediaeval Arab philosopher, I came across the following passage a couple of weeks ago:

'...Time widens the circle of the verses, and I myself know some verses that are, like music, all things to all men. Thus it was that many years ago, in Marrakesh, tortured by memories of Córdoba, I soothed myself by repeating the apostrophe which 'Abd-al-Rahmān spoke in the gardens of al-Rusayfah to an African palm: 


Thou too art, oh palm!,

On this foreign soil... 


'A remarkable gift, the gift bestowed by poetry--words written by a king homesick for the Orient served to comfort me when I was far away in Africa, homesick for Spain.' [1]

Then, last Saturday morning, I awoke with the Doors' song 'Spanish Caravan'--with its lyric, 'Andalusia with fields full of grain'--stuck in my head, and I had to read a bit about Spanish geography. Finally, a grabbed a copy of a book I bought several years ago, Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, edited by Robert Irwin, the 6th chapter of which is entitled 'The Lost Kingdoms of the Arabs: Andalusia'. On the second page of that chapter, I read the following, and immediately recalled Borges:

'Abd al-Rahman I (reigned 756-88) made Cordova the capital of the territory of Andalusia. (The Arabic toponym 'Al-Andalus', which probably originally meant 'Of the Vandals', subsequently came to refer to Muslim Spain.) 
'Abd al-Rahman I was himself a poet. The poem which follows was written at Rusafa, his Spanish palace, which he had named after one of the Umayyad palaces in Syria where he had grown up.

A palm tree I beheld in Ar-Rusafa
Far in the West, far from the palm-tree land:
I said: You, like myself, are far away, in a strange land;
How long have I been far away from my people!
You grew up in a land where you are a stranger,
And like myself, are living in the farthest corner of the earth:
May the morning clouds refresh you at this distance,
And may abundant rains comfort you forever!

Nykl, Hispano-Arabic Poetry and its Relations with the Old Provençal Troubadors, p. 18

'Abd al-Rahman's poem about exile and longing was to set a precedent for the many backward- and eastward-looking laments which form a leading theme in Andalusian literature. [2]


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, tr. Andrew Hurley (NY: Penguin, 1998), p. 240.

[2] Robert Irwin, ed., Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature (NY: Anchor, 2001), p. 245.