The Circularity of Infinity: In Memory of Borges on His Birthday

I discovered Borges in undergrad around the same time that I discovered the Chuang Tzu and the two are linked in my mind. It’s not just that I came upon them at roughly the same time; they communicate similar concepts in similar ways, and I consider Borges to be perhaps the chief of Taoistic Western writers. Both Borges’ work and the Chuang Tzu address chance and fate (as in Borges’ “The Lottery of Babylon” and “The Garden of Forking Paths”), language as mutable and infinitely subjective (as in “The Library of Babel” and “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”), and the possibility of perceiving the whole of existence in a single, enlightened moment (“The Aleph”). Borges’ work also shares with the Chuang Tzu a love of language-play and a wry sense of humor; both are complex and subtle and require more than just a passing glance. All things I love in literature. I was pleasantly surprised today to see that Google produced a doodle in commemoration of his 112th birthday and decided, in that same spirit, to present some Borges quotes I love. Enjoy!

“Rumor had it that The Secret Mirror was a Freudian comedy; this propitious (and fallacious) interpretation determined its success. Unfortunately, Quain had already reached the age of forty; he was totally used to failure and he did not easily resign himself to a change of regime. He resolved to avenge himself. Toward the end of 1939 he issued Statements: perhaps the most original of his works, doubtless the least praised and most secret. Quain was in the habit of arguing that readers were an already extinct species. ‘Every European,’ he reasoned, ‘is a writer, potentially or in fact.’ He also affirmed that of the various pleasures offered by literature, the greatest is invention. Since not everyone is capable of this pleasure, many must content themselves with shams. For these ‘imperfect writers,’ whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories in Statements. Each of them prefigures or promises a good plot, deliberately frustrated by the author. One of them — not the best — insinuates two arguments. The reader, led astray by vanity, thinks he has invented them.” (from “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”)

“Heraclitus of Pontica admiringly relates that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrho, and before that Euphorbus, and before that some other mortal. In order to recall analogous vicissitudes I do not need to have recourse to death, nor even to imposture.” (from “The Babylon Lottery”)

“The faraway king of the birds, the Simurg, drops an exquisite feather in the middle of China; weary of their ancient anarchy, the birds determine to find it. They know that their king’s name means ‘Thirty Birds’; they know that his royal palace stands on the Kaf, the circular mountain which surrounds the earth. They undertake the almost infinite adventure. They fly over seven valleys, or seven seas; the next-to-the-last one is called Vertigo; the last, Annihilation. Many of the pilgrims desert; others perish. Thirty of them, purified by their labors, set foot upon the Mountain of the Simurg. At last they contemplate it; they perceive that they are the Simurg, and that the Simurg is each one of them and all of them.” (from “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” in a footnote)

“Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries — embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.” (from “The Garden of Forking Paths”)

“Once dead, there will not lack pious hands to hurl me over the banister; my sepulchre shall be the unfathomable air; my body will sink lengthily and will corrupt and dissolve in the wind engendered by the fall, which is infinite.” (from “The Library of Babel”)

“An n number of possible languages makes use of the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library admits of the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and the seven words which define it possess another value. You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?” (from “The Library of Babel”)

“I have known what the Greeks did not: uncertainty.” (from “The Babylon Lottery”)

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What’s your favorite Borges quote?

Oscar Wilde: Victorian Taoist

I’m always interested in finding Taoist elements in Western literature, and I find a lot of them in Oscar Wilde’s work. In honor of the 110th anniversary of his death, I’ve decided to display a few of them here, along with corresponding Taoist quotes. Enjoy!

Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.
“The Way has never known boundaries; speech has no constancy. But because of [the recognition of a] ‘this,’ there came to be boundaries. Let me tell you what the boundaries are. There is left, there is right, there are theories, there are debates, there are divisions, there are discriminations, there are emulations, and there are contentions… As to what is beyond the Six Realms, the sage admits it exists but does not theorize. As to what is within the Six Realms, he theorizes but does not debate… So [I say,] those who divide fail to divide; those who discriminate fail to discriminate. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces things. Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2).

The well-bred contradict other people.  The wise contradict themselves.
“Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2)
“Straightforward words / Seem paradoxical.” (Tao Te Ching 78.4)

To become the spectator of one’s own life is to escape the suffering of life.
“To serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate — this is the perfection of virtue.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4)
“If you are content with the time [you have to live] and willing to follow along [with death], then grief and joy have no way to enter in.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 3).

Only the shallow know themselves.
“Tzu-ch’i said… ‘Now I have lost myself. Do you understand that? You hear the piping of men, but you haven’t heard the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of Heaven!’ — Tzu-yu said, ‘May I venture to ask what this means?’ — Tzu-ch’i said, ‘ The Great Clod belches out breath and its name is wind. So long as it doesn’t come forth, nothing happens. But when it does, then ten thousand hollows begin crying wildly. Can’t you hear them, long drawn out? In the mountain forests that lash and sway, there are huge trees a hundred spans around with hollows and openings like noses, like mouths, like ears… They roar like waves, whistle like arrows, screech, gasp, cry, wail, moan, and howl… In a gentle breeze they answer faintly, but in a full gale the chorus is gigantic. And when the fierce wind has passed on, then all the hollows are empty again. Have you never seen the tossing and trembling that goes on?’ — Tzu-yu said, ‘By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?’ — Tzu-ch’i said, ‘Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself — all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?'” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2).

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
“Yen Hui went to see Confucius and asked permission to take a trip. — ‘Where are you going?’ [Confucius asked.] — ‘I’m going to Wei.’ — ‘What will you do there?’ — ‘I have heard that the ruler of Wei is very young. He acts in an independent manner, thinks little of how he rules his state, and fails to see his faults. It is nothing to him to lead his people into peril, and his dead are reckoned by swampfuls like so much grass. His people have nowhere to turn. I have heard you say, Master, “Leave the state that is well ordered and go to the state in chaos! At the doctor’s gate are many sick men.” I want to use these words as my standard, in hopes that I can restore his state to health.’ — ‘Ah,’  said Confucius, ‘you will probably go and get yourself executed, that’s all.'” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4).
“What starts out being sincere usually ends up being deceitful.” (Chuang Tzu, ibid.).

Always! That is the dreadful word … it is a meaningless word, too.
“Hence a gusty wind cannot last all morning, and a sudden downpour cannot last all day. Who is it that produces these? Heaven and earth. If even heaven and earth cannot go on for ever, much less can man.”  (Tao Te Ching 23.2).