Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Trinity's Cardinal Points

"In 'Narrative Art and Magic,' Borges proceeds to discuss the color white in Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Melville’s Moby Dick [...]; then, like Ortega y Gasset, he cites Mallarmé: 'Mallarmé is said to have remarked that naming an object outright is to supress [sic] three-fourths of a poem’s enjoyment, for the pleasure of reading is in anticipation, and the ideal lies in suggestion.'"
-- Lois Parkinson Zamora, The Visualising Capacity of Magical Realism: Objects and Expression in the Works of Jorge Luis Borges [pdf]

A year ago, the NYTimes, apparently not the website of record, first delinked then deleted a number of its Book Forums, including the two of the most interest to me, on Vladimir Nabokov and on Jorge Luis Borges. These were no ordinary bookchats; the former earned cites in a Brian Boyd article on Pale Fire, but it's the latter I jump off here, into Piero Ricci, The Fourth Version of Judas [pdf] (and later, I shall name Names):

nnyhav - 10:24 PM ET March 16, 2003 (#1240) Ricci's commentary may be obtuse {in Judas 4.0}, but hidden in his highflown verbiage an important point is revealed: language at once conceals and betrays. Kabbala fixes upon this, investing Proper Names (=P.N.) with meaning to those initiated in the craft. Logos is the mirror, the excess, and the secret hero. So it is written. And so, implicit in Three Versions, is the fourth (cf. Death and the Compass). Oh, no, I've said too much.

m—b—3 - 7:42 AM ET March 18, 2003 (#1255) [...] NNYHAV, when you refer to "Death and the Compass" do you mean Poe´s. Where does it coincide with the above if so? [...]

nnyhav - 9:16 AM ET March 18, 2003 (#1256) martin - As in D&tC, the 3 explicit versions point towards the 4th implicit one, which encompasses the others. Telling the story is a betrayal and a revelation. But funny you should bring Poe into it: the tales Death and the Compass, The Garden of Forking Paths, & Ibn Hakam al-Bakhari Murdered in his Labyrinth refer respectively to the Dupin tales Purloined Letter, Marie Roget & Rue Morgue. And, similarly, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is the implied fourth part of the trilogy (e.g., note the hotel appearing both in D&tC and in Tlön). Part of all this is confusing the map with the territory (cf. Kabbala).

The correspondences between the Poe and Borges trilogies was established by John T. Irwin, The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story; a review by Scott Peeples, Criticism, Fall 1994, sums it up:

"Irwin makes a strong case that Borges self-consciously matched each of his three detective stories with a specific Poe tale: "Ibn-Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in His Labyrinth" with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Garden of the Forking Paths" with "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "Death and the Compass" with "The Purloined Letter." The last pairing gives rise to one of Irwin's most interesting and complex arguments, which concerns the meaning of the three/four oscillation in those two stories. The triangular structure of the characters' relationships to the letter formulated by Lacan (King/Queen/Minister, Police/Minister/Dupin) becomes, with the addition of the narrator, quadrangular, as in Derrida's reading. Similarly, in "Death and the Compass," Red Scharlach creates, through a series of murders, a labyrinth for Erik Lonnrot that the police see as a triangle but that Lonnrot sees as a diamond in the making. Although Scharlach kills Lonnrot at the fourth point on the map, only three murders actually take place (one having been faked), mirroring the four-letter series consisting of three different letters in the tetragrammaton (JHVH, YHWH, etc.), the very clue Scharlach uses to bait Lonnrot. Of course, Borges also mirrors Poe's triangular pattern of police, criminal, and detective, complete with the psychic doubling of detective and criminal. When Irwin, in the penultimate chapter, conjectures that Lacan got the idea for his "triangular" reading of "The Purloined Letter" from "Death and the Compass," it comes as almost no surprise, for Borges has emerged in the course of this study not only as an ingenious interpreter of Poe but as a writer who has woven nearly the entire Western literary tradition into his fiction and essays."

I first became aware of this extended homage (after all, D&tC is clear on its debt from the get-go) when Derik Badman (now rearranged at hosted a discussion group on pomo detective fiction; this is where I first proposed, as a further extension, that the three Borges tales point to Tlön as the fourth in the same way that the three crimes in Death and the Compass seal Lönnrot's doom.

This 3/4 tango vals, this fancy dancing that wrong-foots Lönnrot, is not an isolated phenomenon in Borges. Borges' essay 'When Fiction Lives in Fiction' talks of Corneille's 'L'Illusion comique', and summarizes the magical vision: "We see Clindor stabbing a rival, fleeing from the law, being murdered in a garden, then chatting with some friends." Note the third and fourth actions, and then compare this to 'Garden of Forking Paths': " ... The book is a contradictory jumble of irresolute drafts. I once examined it myself; in the third chapter the hero dies, yet in the fourth he is alive again." This lends credence to Ricci’s extrapolation to a fourth version of Judas, though not necessarily as he develops it.

The genesis of many of Poe's tales resides in analysis of technical points of reading, writing, and criticism. For instance, 'The Pit and the Pendulum' mirrors the physical act of reading: the pendulum, dropping one notch with each swing, mimics the eye traversing down the page, after which the contraction of the cell walls corresponds to the reduction in text-space as the reader approaches the end of the story. The recursive nature of this technique is perfected in 'The Purloined Letter', which I consider the acme of the short story form. But 'A. Gordon Pym' is also a stand-out in this regard (as was elaborated by Jean Ricardou in the '60s – cf Patrick Quinn, "Arthur Gordon Pym: 'A Journey to the End of the Page'?," via Poe Newsletter V1 #1.

Borges' trilogy has a direct correspondence to Poe's three Dupin tales. I argue that Tlön is brought into a similar relationship to The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, each the longest by their respective authors, and that this tie is knotted with the other tales, particularly D&tC. I would not have considered any of this without JLB's prompting about the coincidence of the hotel in the story in which three points are meant to imply a fourth; outside of the common reference point in Poe, after all, the other three Borges stories don't make much reference to each other (aside from 'The Garden of Forking Paths' and 'Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari' both mentioning the leftward-turning manner of solving a labyrinth -- something of a commonplace). The structure of AGPym is repeated in 'Tlön', down to the prefactory and postscriptural aspects; as an aside, the iconic importance of the South in the Pym story I believe to be a crucial aspect of its usage by Borges (pace national reverberations).

Zamora (top) also provides necessary links: "We learn of the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a compass among the silver table service of the Princess of Faucigny Lucinge, and the discovery of an exceedingly heavy cone, made of “bright metal, the size of a die”(Labyrinths 16). Both appear to be objects from Tlön that have found their way into the “real” world of the narrator. That a compass should appear from a world where there is no conception of space goes unremarked by the narrator, but this is because it is the second object that fascinates him ..." (Zamora herself remarks no further on this compass; throughout AGPym, the narrator is without compass, but often encompassed, by difficulties, horror ...). But the Borges essay referred to (i.e., 'Narrative Art and Magic') discusses not only the whiteness, but excerpts Pym:

"On account of the singular character of the water, we refused to taste it, supposing it to be polluted; and it was not until some time afterward we came to understand that such was the appearance of the streams throughout the whole group. I am at a loss to give a distinct idea of the nature of this liquid, and cannot do so without many words. Although it flowed with rapidity in all declivities where common water would do so, yet never, except when falling in a cascade, had it the customary appearance of limpidity. It was, nevertheless, in point of fact, as perfectly limpid as any limestone water in existence, the difference being only in appearance. At first sight, and especially in cases where little declivity was found, it bore resemblance, as regards consistency, to a thick infusion of gum arabic in common water. But this was only the least remarkable of its extraordinary qualities. It was not colourless, nor was it of any one uniform colour- presenting to the eye, as it flowed, every possible shade of purple; like the hues of a changeable silk. This variation in shade was produced in a manner which excited as profound astonishment in the minds of our party as the mirror had done in the case of Too-wit. Upon collecting a basinful, and allowing it to settle thoroughly, we perceived that the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; that these veins did not commingle; and that their cohesion was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighbouring veins. Upon passing the blade of a knife athwart the veins, the water closed over it immediately, as with us, and also, in withdrawing it, all traces of the passage of the knife were instantly obliterated. If, however, the blade was passed down accurately between the two veins, a perfect separation was effected, which the power of cohesion did not immediately rectify. The phenomena of this water formed the first definite link in that vast chain of apparent miracles with which I was destined to be at length encircled."

This was the passage over which Ricardou took issue with Borges; the latter expropriates terms from AGPym as reflected in this essay in the opening of 'Death and the Compass' to describe the hotel[!]: "(which is notorious for uniting in itself the abhorrent whiteness of a sanitorium, the numbered divisibility of a prison, and the general appearance of a house of ill repute)". Abhorrent whiteness, divisibility (of colors in Poe's water, and) the appearance of pollution. The AGPym extract above should also be put into juxtaposition with Zamora quoting Borges (thrice) quoting Chesterton:

"Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest. . .Yet he seriously believes that these tints can every one of them, in their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire."

So I think Ricardou's assessment of Borges reading of Pym doesn't cut deep enough. (Also, by way of aside, the iconic status of the knife for Borges would make the Pym passage stand out.)

But, back to Ricci … (Ricci, Ricardou, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!). His rumination on names includes the observation that in Hebrew orthography, the name ‘Judas’ differs from the Tetragrammaton only in the insertion of one letter: daleth, the fourth letter of the alphabet. Should the Tetragrammaton be written inadvertently, violation of the taboo is compounded by crossing it out, per the Talmud, which advises inserting daleth instead to transform the name.

A less obvious connection between 'Tlön' and 'Death and the Compass' has to do with the Kabbalistic treatment of the Tetragrammaton. The Sefirot corresponds to ten of twelve possible permutations of letters out of a possible twelve; those excluded have "HH" at their center. D&tC uses one of these disallowed permutations. Meanwhile, in Tlön, discussion with Herbert Ashe (at the hotel again): "One evening, we spoke about the duodecimal number system, in which twelve is written 10. [...] and nothing more was said -- God forgive me -- of duodecimals." It would seem this little more significant than always-turn-left, until I learned that Herbert Ashe is himself based upon another "HH" at that hotel, courtesy of another NYT Books Forum participant, an Argentine expatriate (to Israel) who had had the privilege of knowing Borges:

ch— - 1:36 AM ET July 17, 2003 (#2036 of 3953) […] The name of Herbert Hacke appears in my life signing as a witness in my certificate of birth. In those years in Entre Rios this signature was conceded as an honor from the father to the second. I didn't knew Mr. Hacke personally.

When I already knew to read I saw once the birth certificate --I think it was at the end of the elemantary school--, and I asked my father who was Mr. Hacke. My father said that he was an Austrian Jewish immigrant that resided some years in our city. That he was an engineer and worked in the British railroad company of the Argentine Mesopotamia and Paraguay (years later nationalized as Gen. Urquiza railroad). My father said they were befriended and oftentimes played chess and also billiards in a local Club. My father also said that Mr. Hacke read "strange" books in German --his language-- and, maybe because he worked with Englishmen he spoke very good English. Asked what means "strange" books, my father explained to me what "esoteric" credence is and what "esoteric" books are. I think Mr. Hacke moved to Buenos Aires in 1934.

Years later, in the 50's, I thought that can be a relation between the names Herbert Hacke and Herbert Ashe. Once I asked JLB, describing to him the details I heard from my father. Somewhat astonished, Borges said that truly, Mr. Herbert Hacke was an Austrian Jewish engineer, an employee of the British Railroads that spent some summers in the Adrogué hotel where the Borges family, as was their wont, spend the summer. Borges added that Mr. Hacke spook good English, enjoyed to read "esoteric" books in German and was a very good chess player. He said that in 1937 Mr. Hacke moved to South Brazil and there he passed away because of a circulatory disease. Mr. Borges also commented that some literary critics thought that the personage of Herbert Ashe in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" was inspired on some of Borges father personality charateristics. He affirmed that was not the case; excepting some minor details like their common liking of mathematics. Borges said that "Herbert Ashe" was based on the real person Herbert Hacke. He don´t mentioned Herbert Asbury. And he said to me, with a grin, something like: " Si Herbert fue su padrino, le cabe a usted la probabilidad de visitar Tlön alguna vez". (If Herbert was your second, probably you´ll visit Tlön sometime".)

In the late 50´s and the 60´s (as during most of my adult life) I worked or was connected with publishing houses and their "milieu". In these Buenos Aires circles was widely known Mr. Lawrence Smith, who in the prewar and during the Second World War has been one of the heads of the British Intelligence in the River Plate basin. After the war Mr. Smith (it is arduous to know if this was his real name) retired with honor awards and became a literary representative of authors royalties of translation and of English and American authors and publishing houses. A common old friend of mine and of Mr. Smith, one of the best Argentine translators from English into Spanish, that because his British father was an employee of the same railroad company also had known Mr. Hacke, suggested that we must ask Mr. Smith about my second. Mr. Smith immediatly responded that Mr. Herbert Hacke had been one of the better British Intelligence agents in South America and that he lamented that he passed away a young man in Brazil because of circulatory problems.

To my best knowledge and memory, these are the bare facts.

It has been suggested that Herbert Ashe was a tribute to Herbert Asbury (of Gangs of New York) or JLB’s father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, but behind these three, mysteriously, lurks another, whose proper name remained hidden.

add: revisiting the hotel ...


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