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.

20 May 2015

The Faithful City of Isaiah's Vision


This is a homily I preached at our school chapel last Advent. The text is one I chose, though I don't really remember what led me to it.

‘Afterward thou shalt be called “the city of righteousness, the faithful city”. Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and her converts with righteousness.’

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is fitting as we begin the period of Advent, patiently, or sometimes impatiently, expecting the adventus or coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we look back to the prophecies of the Old Testament that foretell the mighty works He came and will come again to perform. Today’s reading from the prophet may seem to strike a dark note at first, for it concerns the unfaithfulness of the holy city of Zion--Jerusalem. The Prophet Isaiah says the city has become a harlot or adulteress, that she is greedy and without charity or justice. It’s easy to read this and think smugly to ourselves, ‘Wow, those people were bad.’ But we miss the point entirely if we read this prophecy merely as a history of some place in the Middle East thousands of years ago.

For ‘the city’ is us, human beings. This is the Lord’s way of giving us a picture, because we all have some idea of what a city is like, though most of our modern cities are rather poor things. But it is a deeply significant picture. It means human beings are not just individual people, totally separate from each other, but people made for each other. St Chrysostom says, ‘Do you see how many bonds of love God has created? He’s done so as forces of nature lodged in us to be pledges of our peace with one another. We are of the same substance….God made us to need one another...’ [1] Even the great hermit, St Anthony, who spent 30 years in prayer with God alone, says ironically, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour’, [2] and because of this teaching, as St Athanasius writes, even ‘the desert was made a city’. [3] We must begin by realising that human beings are all neighbours, we are a family. In a famous book based on this image of ‘the city’, St Augustine writes:

‘And human nature has nothing more appropriate, either for the prevention of discord, or for the healing of it, where it exists, than the remembrance of that first parent of us all, whom God was pleased to create alone, that all men might be derived from one, and that they might thus be admonished to preserve unity among their whole multitude.’ [4]

Thus our first mother Eve was taken out of the side of our father Adam, and the two were given to each other to help one another. But the sin of the Fall has split this familial unity that St Augustine speaks of, and we have become the broken family that St Augustine calls ‘the city of man’. For ‘the founder of the earthly city was a fratricide’--Cain, the murderer of ‘his own brother, a citizen of the eternal city, and a sojourner on earth’. [5]

And thus, as the Prophet says, the city of man has become full of murderers now (1:21)--for Christ says we are all guilty of murder whenever we become angry with our brother or insult him.

The Prophet says the city’s ‘silver is become dross’ (1:22)--which as Matthew Henry says means that moral corruption and injustice in the powerful among society is worse than economic decline. [6]

The Prophet says the city’s ‘wine is mixed with water’ (1:22)--meaning the sweetness and fellowship of human life has become flavourless due to our sin.

The Prophet says that the princes--our leaders--have become rebellious against God--the companions of thieves--defrauding the poor--greedy for profits and bribes--allowing the oppression and exploitation of the powerless--calling the orphans and the widows and the homeless lazy, dishonest, thieves, and drunkards, when it is really the powerful who are all these things. (1:23)


It is this city of which Socrates prophetically warned his pupil Alicibiades, ‘I know the city, and I fear that it shall get the better of both of us’ [7]--of the pupil, because it would seduce him to a life of sin, and of the teacher, because it would put him to death unjustly.

So God says He will ‘avenge’ Him ‘of His enemies’ (1:24). He will say: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’ (Matt. 25:41-3)



This is the fate of what St Augustine calls ‘the city of man’, and it is depicted well in Dante’s Inferno, where Dante beholds ‘the city they call Dis, / with its great hosts, with its grave citizens’. [8]

But thanks be to God, there is another City, which St Augustine calls ‘the City of God’--because as St John says, when he sees it ‘coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’ (‘in the purity and virtue of the saints’), it ‘has the glory of God in it’ lightening it more brilliantly than even the sun could do (Rev. 21:2, 11, 23). It is a city of the converts, of the repentant, restored to beauty and order--and love--by the Lord, and thus as St Andrew of Crete writes, ‘This city, which has Christ as its cornerstone, is composed of the saints concerning whom it is written: They shall be as the stones of a crown, lifted up as an ensign upon His land (Zech. 9:16)’ [9].


It is a city marked by justice and charity between all, where ‘the love that moves the sun and the stars’ binds everyone together forever. In an essay called ‘The Redeemed City’, the eccentric Anglican man of letters, Charles Williams writes:


In the last paragraph of the Apostles’ Creed the City is defined. ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost’ is its first clause and primal condition….Simultaneously all its citizens derive from all. ‘The Holy Catholic Church’ is its name here, allowing for all proper implications of whatever kind....But the other four clauses are, as it were, the four walls of the description [of St John] in the Apocalypse; or, if the metaphor divides them too much, say they are the four qualities of that life: ‘the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins, the Resurrection of the Body, and the Life everlasting’. They are the qualities of the renewed perfection of union--interchange, interchange redeeming even the denial of itself...The almost incredible nature of things is that there is no fact which is not His glory. This is the great inclusion which makes the City. If, to use terms of space, we ascend towards it, it is still that which descends out of heaven, and is the cause and course of our ascent. The language of it is in the great interchange of fiery tongues by which the Spirit manifested at the beginning. [10]

But we mustn’t forget that all of this does not simply happen magically. As the Lord says through His prophet, ‘I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy’ (Is 1:25). We must be purged of our sins and passions, and begin to practice the commandments of Christ if we are to become the City of God. So as we embark upon this journey that will lead us to the little city of Bethlehem, and to worship the great King whose birth is proclaimed with the words ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace towards men of good will’, let us remember to do our part in symphony with His grace to live with justice, to show love towards all in our earthly city here and now, and to comfort the outcasts and afflicted in the streets, so that we may one day behold the heavenly City, where ‘God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’ (Rev 21:4).



For the city of the great King is well planted on the mountains of Sion, with the joy of the whole earth, on the sides of the north. God is known in her palaces, when he undertakes to help her. (Ps 47:2-3 LXX)


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Homily 34.6; St John Chrysostom, The Love Chapter: The Meaning of First Corinthians 13 (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2010), pp. 78-9.

[2] Apopophegmata Patrum, Anthony 9; Benedicta Ward, SLG, tr., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. 3.

[3] Vita Antonii 14; St Athanasius, The Life of Antony & the Letter to Marcellinus, tr. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980), pp. 42-3.

[4] De Civitate Dei 12.27; St Augustine, The City of God, tr. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950), p. 410.

[5] De Civitate Dei  15.5; St Augustine, p. 482.

[6] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible: New One Volume Edition, ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1966), p. 828.

[7] Alcibiades 135e; Plato, ‘Alcibiades’, tr. D.S. Hutchinson, The Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper & D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), p.

[8] Inferno 8.68-9; Dante Alighieri, Inferno, tr. Anthony Esolen (NY: Modern Library, 2003), p. 81.

[9] In Archbishop Averky, The Apocalypse in the Teachings of Ancient Christianity, tr. & ed. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), p. 268.

[10] Charles Williams, The Image of the City & Other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler (London: Oxford U, 1970), p. 110.

19 May 2015

Donald Sheehan & Edith Wyschogrod on Shakespeare & Henry James


This will likely be a short post, largely because I don’t have that much to say on the subject right now, but I’d still like to get it out there for my own benefit at least.

Recently, Xenia Sheehan very kindly had Paraclete Press send me a review copy of The Grace of Incorruption: The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith & Poetics, a collection of essays by her late husband, Donald, a former professor of English at Dartmouth and director of The Frost Place in New Hampshire. I was thrilled to receive it, having already perused the contents in a pdf she e-mailed me a few months back, but felt a little uncertain of what order I wanted to read it in. To make a long story short, I found myself very soon going to Part One, chapter 6, ‘The Way of Beauty & Stillness: Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale’. [1] It is a truly enlightening essay throughout, and I was excited by Sheehan’s handling, signalled in the title itself, of Archimandrite Vasileios’s lovely bibliaki, Beauty & Hesychia in Athonite Life, as well as the reading of the Bard’s play that is the essay’s raison d’être.

What I wanted to focus on here, however, is a very specific aspect of Sheehan’s perceptive mediation of a dialogue between Winter’s Tale and J.D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey. He describes the plot of WT in some detail, focusing intently on Paulina’s revelation of the living Hermione to her husband, Leontes, who has believed her dead for 16 years. Sheehan notes that this revelation is a response to, but also, by cultivating a spirit of stillness through beauty, further productive of Leontes’s repentance for his destructive jealousy. He then suggests that the image of ‘the Fat Lady’ that their older brother Seymour has inculcated in Franny and Zooey has taught Franny a similar wisdom born of beauty and stillness:

This wisdom is above all iconic, for it reveals to the beholder--both to Franny and to Leontes--the way of beauty and stillness.



In both Salinger and Shakespeare, this way opens through death: the [feigned] death of Hermione and the [actual] death of Seymour. For in both, death becomes the way in which both Hermione and Seymour can become iconic, and in so doing, they can become for Leontes and Franny the transforming experience of the boundary, that place between the worlds that simultaneously separates and reconciles. As Father Vasileios puts it: ‘To die, to be buried, to depart’ so as ‘to give another the ability to love life’ (Beauty, 9). Here is the light of beauty and stillness that shines in late Shakespeare and Salinger. [2]

This passage immediately recalled for me a book I spent a bit of time with in college--Edith Wyschogrod’s Saints & Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy (which I have already blogged about briefly here). In chapter two, ‘Saintly Influence’, ‘Henry James’s novel The Wings of the Dove is treated as hagiographic fiction that illustrates the influence of altruistic action on moral self-interpretation and practice.’ [3] The ‘saint’ of the piece, on Wyschogrod’s reading, [4]  is Millie Theale, a young American heiress suffering from a terminal illness who discovers that the poor Englishman (Merton Densher) she loves is secretly engaged to someone else (Kate Croy) and is only pursuing her in the hopes of getting her money after she dies. Although this plan is conceived by Kate, Densher is induced to persist in the courtship of Millie until his conscience drives him to confess. Already Millie’s kindness and innocence have been operating upon him, and she selflessly encourages him to pursue his true love, Kate. But when she dies, Millie leaves the scheming couple a large bequest to help them get married, despite knowing full well how they had tried to deceive her. While remaining firm in her intent to accept the money, Kate astutely observes, ‘She gave up her life that you might understand her’, and ‘She died for you that you might understand her. From that hour you did.’ [5]

In Wyschogrod’s words, it is here, ‘when the interplay of cynical reason and saintly generosity becomes transparent’, that ‘Densher’s transfiguration occurs’. [6] He renounces the bequest and refuses to marry his calculating fiancee unless she renounces it too. ‘...Millie’s moral practice is now (somehow) repeated in Densher’s life. He has learned a new moral gesture.’ [7] One is tempted to say that whereas for Kate, the ‘wings of the dove’ were Millie’s bequest itself, enabling her and Densher to ‘fly and be at rest’ in their worldly life, for Densher the ‘wings’ were her forgiveness and generosity made manifest in her death by the request, which enable his soul to fly from the mercenary ends he has pursued and ‘be at rest’ inwardly. To use Sheehan’s words, Millie becomes iconic, thereby opening to Densher the way of beauty and stillness. Fr Vasileios’s words, quoted by Sheehan, certainly seem to apply to Millie’s decision:

To die, to be buried, to depart. . . . And yet to have lived and died in such a way that your presence, discretely and from a distance as if a fragrance from someone absent, can give others the possibility to breathe divine fragrance! To grant someone else the possibility of living, of being invigorated, of having the nausea dispelled; to give another the ability to love life, to acquire self-confidence and stand on his own two feet, so that from within him there arises spontaneously a ‘Glory to Thee, O God!’. [8]

Never having read The Wings of the Dove, or Franny & Zooey for that matter, I can’t develop the connections much further without ending up on thin ice, but even this much looks to me like an interesting parallel.




[1] Donald Sheehan, The Grace of Incorruption: The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith & Poetics, ed. Xenia Sheehan (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2015), pp. 75-86.

[2] Ibid., p. 85.

[3] Edith Wyschogrod, Saints & Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1990), p. 33.

[4] It should be noted that Wyschogrod is well aware that her ‘saint’ is not a traditional one. One reason she notes inter alia: ‘In Jewish and Christian saintly narratives, power ultimately derives from transcendence and is channeled through saintly practice. By contrast, in a novel reflecting its nineteenth-century capitalist provenance, power is derived from wealth’ (ibid., p. 45).

[5] Qtd. in ibid., pp. 46 & 48.

[6] Ibid., p. 46.

[7] Ibid., p. 48.



[8] Archimandrite Vaseileios, Beauty & Hesychia in Athonite Life, tr. Constantine Kokenes (Montreal: Alexander, 1996), p. 11.

28 January 2015

'In the beginning was the Act' - Goethe's Faust



I’m not sure when I first learned of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dramatic masterpiece, Faust, although it was probably around 11 or 12. I’m fairly certain I already knew of it when I saw a copy depicted as part of a small bibliothèque infernale on a poster for the horror-punk band, The Misfits. I think I must have purchased my copy of Walter Kaufmann’s bilingual edition some time during my stint at Barnes & Noble, likely in 1998 or 1999. What finally made up my mind to read it some day, however, was Jaroslav Pelikan’s statement in his brief ‘Personal Memoir: Fragments of a Scholar’s Autobiography’ (here) that he had begun the habit in his teens of reading the whole thing through in German once a year without fail.

By the time I came across that fascinating fact, I already knew of Pelikan’s appreciation for the German Romantic, having heard him refer to Goethe at a lecture at the University of Oklahoma in 1999 (I think) as well as having read his quote from Faust at the beginning and end of his delightful Jefferson Lectures, The Vindication of Tradition:

An older contemporary of Emerson’s, whom Emerson rightly regarded as the wisest and most universal mind of the century (except, Emerson felt obliged to add, for ‘the velvet life he lived!’), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, saw it all more deeply and said it all more clearly:
What you have as heritage,
Take now as task;
For thus you will make it your own! [1]


Nevertheless, despite this long awareness of the book and the inducements of Pelikan’s esteem for it, I only very recently began to read it for myself. When I did, I was very quickly reminded of the treatment of Faust in David Lyle Jeffery’s People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture, which I finished earlier this summer, so I went back and reread much of that chapter before proceeding further in Goethe.

Jeffrey draws some fascinating connections between Goethe’s depiction of Faust in his study and what DLJ calls ‘the symbolism of the faithful reader’ in the Christian artistic tradition. In this connection, I was particularly fascinated by Jeffrey’s references to the famous engravings of St Jerome by Albrecht Dürer (on which I have blogged a bit here). [2] Indeed, I would love to do some thinking through, or read someone else thinking through, the implications of Yates’s analysis of Dürer for an analysis of Faust.

The passage that carried me a little further outside Faust itself, however, was Jeffrey’s section on ‘Logos and Lector’, where he focuses on Faust 1224-37. I will quote in full Kaufmann’s translation of this passage, including in brackets the German for a few key terms:

(He opens a tome [of the New Testament] and begins.)
It says: ‘In the beginning was the Word [Wort].’

Already I am stopped. It seems absurd.

The Word does not deserve the highest prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am well inspired and not blind.

It says: In the beginning was the Mind [Sinn].

Ponder that first line, wait and see,

Lest you should write too hastily.

Is mind the all-creating source?
It ought to say: In the beginning there was Force [Kraft].
Yet something warns me as I grasp the pen,

That my translation must be changed again.

The spirit helps me. Now it is exact.

I write: In the beginning was the Act [Tat]. [3]

Now I admit that the import of all of this is most unclear to me. Why can Faust not accept the first verse of St John’s Gospel? Because all of this follows on his reference to attempting to translate the NT into German, I’m a little tempted to wonder if it’s more the German word Wort he’s objecting to, and not the Λόγος of the Gospel. But I admit that the successive attempts give me the chills, carrying as I’m afraid they can no longer help but do the crushing weight of German fascist association. [4] For his part, Jeffrey finds, ‘Faust rejects in this formulation the source of all Christian symbol, “the Law of the Lord”, but most specifically the Logos, the doctrine of the incarnate Word.’ [5]

My readiness to accept this reading, as undeveloped as it was, predisposed me to be a little shocked when I turned to another reference to this passage from Faust: the epigraph to Chapter Two, ‘Answerability & Ethics: Toward a Philosophy of Action’, in Alexandar Mihailovic’s remarkable monograph, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse. It had been some time since I’d looked at this book, and I only went back to it on a hunch (since Johannine logology was such an important part of Mihailovic’s analysis). Sure enough, at the heading of Chapter 2, we see:

Im Anfang war die Tat.
--Goethe, Faust.


Now, this was intriguing enough by itself, but it was followed immediately by a second epigraph:

The Formalists are imprinted with the seal of overripe clericalism. They are Johannites. For them ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ But for us in the beginning was the act: the word appeared only after [the act], like a shadow made of sound.
--Leo Trotsky, Literature & Revolution (1924) [6]

At this point, of course, I was fully engaged. Unfortunately, a quick skim through the chapter failed to turn up any further references to Goethe or Trotsky until the very end. There we read: ‘In a very real sense, Bakhtin inverts the Johannine conception of the conception of the word: for him, as for Trotsky--and this is the only area in which the critic and the revolutionary would agree--the act comes first, the word proceeding from it as its concretized efflorescence.’ [7]

Of course, I am hardly inclined to take this at face value. First, note that ‘word’ is not capitalised, either in Trotsky’s statement about its appearance after the act, or at all in Mihailovic’s statement about Bakhtin. Indeed, Mihailovic’s whole point seems to be that Bakhtin’s use of theological language almost invariably replaces the theological content of that language with discursive content. He takes what Christians say about ‘the Word’, and applies it to what we say about ‘the word’, i.e., discourse. [8] Second, Mihailovic himself states that for Bakhtin it is precisely ‘Incarnational theology [that] provides a framework for understanding the formal and material dimensions of the human community; according to Bakhtin, it unites that which has been separated by contemporary approaches to ethics.’ [9] If the rejection of Wort for Tat is a rejection of ‘the doctrine of the Incarnate Word’, as I’m inclined to believe it is for Faust, for Bakhtin it must mean that he cannot follow Faust as easily as Mihailovic seems to suggest.

Since writing that last paragraph, I have read very carefully through an interesting article by a Goethe specialist all about the passage I’ve been considering. I can’t say I have perfectly understood all of Erik Eisel’s ‘“In the Beginning Was the Word...”: The Question of the Origin of Language in Goethe’s Faust’ (here). The gist of Eisel’s argument is that Goethe is making his own contribution to the question of the origin of language, a question memorably essayed by Johann Herder, whose contribution to the subject directly influenced Goethe. I admit I struggled a bit with this aspect of the paper, but I fancy I’ve detected one or two things that dovetail with some of my reflections here.

First, Eisel strikes a note of what Harold Bloom might call ‘anxiety of influence’ in Faust. He asks, ‘Will the appropriation of this primal sentence [i.e., John 1:1] into his own primal writing scene establish a  pattern of continued undifferentiation? Or a hoped-for self-differentiation?’ Comparing Faust’s efforts to translate Scripture into ‘mein geliebtes Deutsch’ to those of his historical contemporary, Martin Luther, Eisel notes, ‘Unlike Luther, he cannot decide whether his translation of “word” into “act” establishes a pattern for the emergence of culture that differentiates him from tradition--or from the former self that he wants to escape.’ Later on, he makes two more comments along these lines. First, he observes, ‘Instead of employing a technique of free translation, Goethe depicts Faust using the literary technique of appropriation in order to transform the “original text”(Grundtext) of the Bible into a personal response to the question of language origin.’ Second, Eisel notes that ‘Goethe prefaces the scene...by emphasizing that translation results from a “personal desire” (mich draengt’s) to make something one’s own, “in mein geliebtes Deutsch ze uebertragen”...’

The last comment reminds me disturbingly of Pelikan’s favourite quotation, from earlier in the poem--‘What you have as heritage, / Take now as task; / For thus you will make it your own!’ Is Faust’s translation attempt a perversion of this charge, or a fulfillment of it? Hoping to get some feel for an answer to this question, I paid very close attention to precisely what it was Eisel was alleging as the object of Faust’s anxiety. In other words, what precisely is the ‘tradition’ that he associates with his ‘former self’ and which he hopes to escape?
I remain slightly unclear on this point. In one place, Eisel writes, ‘For Goethe, translation is the preferred method of creating a literary space where his literary creation, Faust, rebels against the Kantian universe with which he is familiar.’ Okay, so despite the obvious anachronism from an historical perspective, perhaps Kantianism is what Goethe is making his character escape from? But delving into Friedrich Kittler’s ‘wide-ranging work, Discourse Networks 1800/1900’, Eisel suggests an answer that may or may not be connected with Kantianism:

An ‘untimely meditation’ if there ever was one, the melancholic sigh in the opening monologue of Goethe’s play is an expression of Faust’s obvious disgust with the uncomfortable, high-vaulted Gothic den where he lives and works. It is, moreover, an indictment of the circulation of words and books being endlessly renewed with the Republic of Scholars and the Four Faculties. According to Kittler, the beginning of German literature is the dismantling of this obsolete discourse network and the self-generation of a narrative newly oriented towards the reader’s bodily experience of the text and of language.

To me this suggests something generally anti-intellectual, the equation of scholarship and the study of texts with dry, inactive, or ineffectual preoccupations, with a negation of vitality. It suggests that it is the whole tradition of Christian culture--represented first by the Gothic den of St Jerome and second by the traditional connotations of St John’s Prologue--that Faust wishes to distance himself from or escape. I certainly don’t think this tradition is in any way Kantian, though perhaps Goethe is suggesting Kant is a kind of logical conclusion of the tradition?

At any rate, it is in particular the way that Eisel describes Faust setting out to effect this distanciation that is in my opinion closest to some of my considerations above.

[At this point I had to leave off working on this post for a while, and returning to Eisel’s somewhat difficult essay, I found I had completely lost my train of thought! What follows is a much later and necessarily truncated attempt to reconstruct the direction I think I was taking with this post. I hope it makes sense in light of the above reflections.]

Eisel draws on a notion he finds in Kittler of ‘the theatricality of performance’ to delineate Faust’s self-distanciation from all the connotations of the Gothic den. At this point I will quote at some length:

It is not Faust’s proverbial thirst for knowledge that makes him an interesting case study for his diagnosis of a European ‘discourse network’, but his love of spectacle and of the physical effect of astonishment. Upon discovering the magic sign of the Macrocosm, Faust shouts out, ‘What play! Yet but a play, however vast!’ [10] Despite reservations about the superficial character of spectacle, he wants more of it, since it commands a sublimity not to be found in the drabness of his Gothic library. In Kittler’s opinion, this appetite for the sublime is something conditioned by the cultural media of the Enlightenment. Faust’s preference for theatrical gesture over linguistic expression grows out of a person ‘resentment’ against the word (Kittler 13). Accordingly, Kittler interprets the crisis of conventionality in the late Enlightenment as provoking the efforts of a new generation of Romantic writers to initiate a ‘paradigm shift’ within the traditional pedagogical scene that Faust describes in the opening lines of his monologue.

Perhaps it’s simply a conversation that I’m coming to far too late, but to me this passage is very obscure. That said, it strikes me that there are a couple of ways to read it. One is that Eisel and Kittler are discerning at work merely the desire for movement and action typical of youth, a desire writ large in the aspirations and fervency of the Romantic movement. But the other is perhaps more interesting. To my mind it may be that these two scholars are talking about an idea with which I have become increasingly preoccupied lately--the idea of poetic knowledge, and its cousin, that of ‘suffering’ or ‘experiencing’ rather than ‘learning about’ divine things (see this post). Although Eisel notes ‘the superficial character of spectacle’, in the enactment of drama (I’m thinking particularly of classical tragedy), we have a discourse that is in some ways akin to liturgy, where the mystery of knowledge is no longer confined to the ‘scientific’ learning of the text, but is entered into by experience with the senses and acted out. Is it possible that it is something not so far from liturgy that Faust is drawn to in his ‘preference for theatrical gesture’?
Either way, I hesitate to make too much of the Bakhtinian inversion of supposedly Johannine ‘word’ that Mihailovic believes he has discovered. If ‘word’ is to be equated with verbal discourse only, then it is natural that it lose its ontological priority, and we could perhaps do much worse than replace it with ‘act’ in the sense of enacting the mystery in which we participate. ‘Word’ can only be restored to primacy of place if it becomes again that Λόγος that dwelt in silence with God in the beginning, already full of the love that would act by creating everything.





[1] Qtd. in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1984), p. 82; see also the epigraph on the dedication page, p. v. The lines are 682-3, and are found on pp. 114 & 115 of Kaufmann’s edition, where they are rendered, ‘What from your fathers you received as heir, / Acquire if you would possess it’ (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, tr. Walter Kaufmann [NY: Anchor, 1990], pp. 114-5).

[2] David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 214-5.

[3] Goethe, p. 153.

[4] My Webster’s New World German Dictionary supports Kaufmann’s renderings of the German terms, though it also gives other possible meanings. The first definition given for Sinn is ‘sense’, followed by ‘mind’, ‘feeling’, ‘spirit’, and ‘point’ (Webster’s New World German Dictionary, Concise edition, ed. Peter Terrell & Horst Kopleck [Indianapolis: Wiley, 1987], p. 389) Under definition (a), Kraft is translated ‘strength’, ‘power, force’, or ‘energy’, and under (b) as ‘power’ or ‘force’ (it is compared to Macht) (ibid., p. 258).

At any rate, as Erik Eisel points out, Hitler himself praised Goethe ‘for giving such prominence to “deeds” over “words”’.

[5] Jeffrey, p. 258.

[6] Alexandar Mihailovic, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997), p. 51. I have posted at some length on Bakhtin and the Formalists here, in a post which somehow earned me the accusation that I ‘hate literature’.

[7] Ibid., p. 85.

[8] In their useful, if flawed, intellectual biography of Bakhtin, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist quote Kenneth Burke in order to explain their assumptions about Bakhtin’s project: ‘As Kenneth Burke remarked, “statements that great theologians made about the nature of ‘God’ might be adapted mutatis mutandis for use as purely secular observations on the nature of words…”’ (Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin [Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1984], p. 83).

[9] Mihailovic, p. 78. [10] Goethe, p. 99.