Friday, November 11, 2005

Quote: Jorge Luis Borges

Borges Joven y ViejoI close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted. In this case I saw fewer than ten birds (let us say) and more than one, but did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, which was not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That integer--not-nine, not-eight, not-seven, not-six, not-five, etc.--is inconceivable. Ergo, God exists.
--Jorges Luis Borges, "Argumentum Ornithologicum" (in The Aleph and Other Stories, New York: Penguin, 2000)


  1. j,

    One of the buried themes in Snow, as I've no doubt mentioned before, is the nagging problem of God in the art of the West. (The paradox is especially acute in Turkey and, indeed, in Islamic world, since modernity is almost in direct opposition with the society: to create, in an individual way, is to betray submission to God's way.) Artists, being artists, will defy convention, at least initially. What is most interesting is the void that is felt when God is denied, and Ka [the main protagonist], is a vehicle for this theme: he, like many an Istanbuli of a certain age and station, is having difficulty reconciling the disparate parts of his identity. Once he visits a Sufi sheikh, he seemingly becomes unstuck, able to write poetry where he was unable to prior to the meeting. (Pamuk has long been interested in sufi thought, a doctrine that stresses a direct relationship with God, dispensing with the clerical body that was nowhere present in Muhammad's time.)

    Switching tracks, I've long been fascinated by Borges's precise logic, here resembling a mathematical proof. Although some suppose the two to be incompatible, nothing could be further from the truth: I am an unbeliever, after a fashion, like all conventional "artists" (and I am using that term quite losely). But, not long ago, I was in St. Casimir's, a beautiful cathedral in east Baltimore that catered/s to the Polish community that settled in its environs, when the priest began discussing Augustine (the Catholics are marvelous in their wonkiness, to be sure). The father mused on the saint's checkered past (a bit of a mischaracterization, but we'll let it stand), with an emphasis on his philosophical dalliances, the very portrait of a Young Turk. Talk then turned to Augustine's personal trials and difficulties with faith.

    Man, it was if guy was speking directly to me, if you get my drift. I'm a mathematician, and I saw that my problem with faith, a very difficult one, to be on the same continuum as Augustine's--I mean, if a saint can be struggling, surely so can I. (The writings are startingly modern; his Confessions are truly the first writings that probe the self, employing psychology a full millenium before Charcot and Freud.) Egad.

    Pardon the free associating,

  2. Bill, no problem. I'm familiar with Augustine, though he didn't have the same effect on me, I guess because, having been through the Catholic ringer, I saw through what I took to be a "strategy," and a very effective one, of persuasive narrative and reasoning that drew many (thousands?) into the fold. (As that priest was so skillfully doing....) Borges' aim was to mirror logic, though as he often does in his work, he tries to play on it--he often enlists the absurd in his cause, as if to say ultimately that language can achieve artifice that is akin to God's (or the gods') power(s), and so while we must be aware of this, at the same time, we also should be willing to utilize it to the fullest. He also presses the extremes of logic and myth, as in "Funes the Memorious," or "The Library of Babel," etc. One of my favorites, despite his politics. I hear what you're saying about Snow, though since I haven't read it I can't really comment, but it's a thread that runs through works by others, both in the West and outside it (Mahfouz comes to mind, for example).