Archive | April, 2018

Borges and the infinite dance of entropy

24 Apr

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As discussed in a previous post, time is not real. There is no flow: past, present and future cannot be sensibly defined and there is nothing yet to counter the position held by the second law of thermodynamics, namely that entropy – the general disorder of the universe – is always on the increase. Otherwise, I feel much as Augustine of Hippo did when he wrote of his understanding of time as a kind of hunch: ‘If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.’

But ever-increasing disorder, that I can understand, both in the dictionary sense of: Entropy: lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder – but also in a more general, or literary way.

Last night I read two late stories by Borges that seemed to be tugging at the same idea: that we live in a world governed by forces of increasing entropy. The stories were ‘The Book of Sand’ and ‘Blue Tigers’. While I do not wish to limit either of these to a single explanatory reading, it is interesting to consider the way they approach the same conceptual material through slightly different means. In ‘The Book of Sand’ (published in the collection of that name in 1975, when Borges was seventy-six) the narrator, a reclusive Borges figure who lives ‘alone, in a fifth-floor apartment on Calle Belgrano’ and who used to work – as Borges did – in the National Library on Calle México, is visited by a stranger who bears a strange book: an ‘infinite book’, in which, as the visitor explains: ‘No page is the first page; no page is the last. I don’t know why they’re numbered in this arbitrary way, but perhaps it’s to give one to understand that the terms of an infinite series can be numbered any way whatever.’ He goes on: ‘If space is infinite, we are anywhere at any point in space. If time is infinite, we are at any point in time.’

The narrator is sold. The book, as he can see, is unique. If you find a page – as he does, with  a small illustration of an anchor drawn in pen and ink – and then you attempt to find it again, you will not. That page will have gone, and will never return. Nor is it possible to find the book’s beginning, or its end. It is, the narrator decides, ‘a nightmare thing, an obscene thing  . . . that defiled and corrupted reality.’ But that realisation comes later. First, he must acquire it, and to do so he exchanges his pension (from the library) and his very valuable black-letter Wyclif Bible. The monstrous book obsesses him. He spends the day leafing through it, never finding the same page twice – infinite entropy – and the nights, during ‘the rare intervals spared [him] by insomnia’ dreaming of it.

In the end, he returns to the library in which he spent his working life, and which contains ‘nine hundred thousand books’ and he hides it there, ‘on one of the library’s damp shelves’.

This exploration of infinite chance, or – which may be the same thing –  infinite chaos, neatly reflects, or expands upon, the principle of the second law of thermodynamics; that entropy can only increase over time. And as if that were not enough, Borges re-visits the idea a few years later with his story ‘Blue Tigers’, published in his final collection, Shakespeare’s Memory (1983). Incidentally, both this volume and its predecessor, The Book of Sand, open with a variation on the same theme: a meeting between Borges and his doppelgänger. ‘The Other’, the opening story of the 1975 collection, tells of a meeting on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between a seventy-year-old Borges and his twenty-year-old, Geneva-dwelling self, while ‘August 25, 1983’ tells a parallel story between an eighty-four year old Borges and his sixty-one-year-old double. Curious – or, considering this is Borges, not so curious –  that the themes of time and chance should be so consistently, or insistently linked in each collection.

But to move on: ‘Blue Tigers’ tells the story of a somewhat tetchy individual, a Scottish professor of ‘Eastern and Western Logic’ [?!] at the University of Lahore. The year is 1904. He is obsessed (as was Borges) with tigers, especially, curiously, blue tigers, of which he dreams: ‘tigers of a blue I had never seen before, and for which I could find no word.’ One day he hears rumours of a blue tiger roaming near ‘a certain village miles from the Ganges.’ He has to go there: ‘Once again I dreamed of the blue tiger, throwing its long shadow as it made its way over the sandy ground. I took advantage of the end of term to make a journey to that village, whose name (for reasons that will soon be clear) I do not wish to recall.’

At the unnamed village, things do not go well for the Scotsman. Although the villagers speak vaguely of the tiger, and recite rumours of its deeds, he never catches sight of it. The villagers are wary of him, evasive. Moreover, he hates the jungle: ‘It crept virtually into the huts. The days were oppressive, and the nights brought no relief.’ Next to the village is a hill, which the villagers never ascend. They claim it has sacred properties and appear afraid of it. The Scotsman has the notion that the tiger lives up the hill so one night he climbs to the summit, which is not very high, and there he finds lots of tiny blue stones, in the shape of disks. They are the same blue as the tiger of his dream. He collects a few of the stones and puts them in his pocket. He returns to the village and sleeps. In the morning the stones have multiplied: ‘’When I opened my hand, I saw that it held thirty or forty disks: I’d have sworn I’d picked up no more than ten.” And so it continues. The stones, or disks are what the villagers call blue tigers, hence their evasiveness. The Scotsman’s relationship with his hosts becomes problematic. He is obsessed with the stones. They too are an embodiment of ever-increasing entropy: they increase in number without cease and the same stones never appear more than once. He returns to Lahore with a handful of stones in his pockets. They multiply. He experiments with them, cutting crosses in them, drilling notches through their centres. Mostly, the marked stones disappear ‘forever’. One stone, cut with a cross  reappears ‘from its journey into the void’, but it is an exception. ‘What mysterious sort of space was this, which in obedience to inscrutable laws or some inhuman will absorbed the stones and then in time threw an occasional one back again?’

Like the infinite book presented to the ex-librarian in ‘The Book of Sand’, these ‘insensate stones that propagate themselves’ are an abomination: they too defile and corrupt reality. The Scotsman seeks redemption at the mosque of Wazil Khan, plunging his hands into the water of the fountain of ablutions. There he is approached by a beggar, who asks for alms.

‘In the soft light I could make out his turban, his sightless eyes, his sallow skin, his grey beard. He was not very tall.

He put out a hand to me, and said, still softly:

“Alms, oh Protector of the Poor . . .”

I put my hands in my pocket.

“I have not a single coin,” I replied.

“You have many,” was the beggar’s answer.

The stones were in my right pocket. I took one out and dropped it into his cupped palm. There was not the slightest sound.

“You must give me all of them,” he said. “He who gives not all has given nothing.”

I understood, and I said:

“I want you to know that my alms may be a curse.”

“Perhaps that gift is the only gift I am permitted to receive. I have sinned.”

I dropped all the stones into the concave hand. They fell as though into the bottom of the sea, without the slightest whisper . . . ‘

 

Throughout Borges’ career, he was preoccupied, as he himself once said, with ‘games of time and infinity’, and he returned again and again to the theme of time, of the inexorable journey from a past we cannot revisit to a future we cannot know. But he was also, it would seem – especially in his later years – obsessed with the indecipherable nature of a reality in which matter – things – repeat themselves in the infinite dance of entropy.

Waylaid by a man-root in the Pyrenees

9 Apr

 

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As we follow a trail across the Alberas – the lower ranges of the Pyrenees as they dip towards the Mediterranean – I am stopped in my tracks by an outgrowth of woody root-stuff in my path, in the shape of a man. It is quite perfect in form, and the thought crosses my mind that it is sitting there with intent, and that it possesses intrinsic intelligence. After we have moved on, I am reminded of that other root, the mandrake, which was once considered to possess magical properties, and which, because the plant contains hallucinogenic alkaloid properties, probably did.

Returning to the village, I pick up a book by John Berger. Berger’s relationship to landscape, especially the landscape of the French Alps where he made his home, resonates powerfully with me, which is to say, I stand in awe of him.  He writes, in Bento’s Sketchbook, of his deep and longstanding debt of gratitude to the philosopher Spinoza, interjecting his own text with snippets from his seventeenth-century mentor. He also draws, and his sketches accompany the text. He says of this: ‘We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.’ Under which, I have scribbled, in pencil  – how true! – & not only of drawing . . . On the facing page, a quotation from Spinoza ends with the words: ‘So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration.’ And it occurs to me that the little man-root that popped into my path earlier in the day, up there on the mountain, appeared just there, just then, in order to point the way to my incalculable destination, also.

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What if the future determines the present?

6 Apr

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Retrocausality is the ability of the future to influence or alter the present (or of the present to do the same with the past). This is not, I think, to be confused with the fundamentalist protestant idea of predestination, of one’s life being mapped out in advance by an all-knowing God; although it might, at a stretch, map onto the notion of what anthropologists call ‘all-embracing determinism’, as practised in certain (actual or imagined) societies.

Sometimes the universe, or providence, conspires to move in a certain direction and the same signs or symbols keep cropping up in one’s life. Not long ago a series of events – or coincidences – occurred, which got me thinking about the strange possibility of retrocausality, and then, of course, my reading kept producing lines that seemed to confirm what was going on in the so-called ‘outer world’ was somehow being steered by its outcome, rather than – or in addition to – ‘working its way towards one’. It means, for a moment, putting everything we have always believed about causality on hold, and looking at events from another, or even the opposite direction.

Sometimes, we even write things, and then they happen, as I’ve discussed before:

There are times, when: ‘a fictional event or perception or concept is reproduced in reality after the story, or poem, or literary artifice, has been put down on paper. In grammar, cataphora is the reference to a textual item that has not yet been mentioned. By extension we might consider cataphoric reference also to be the way phenomena sometimes manifest themselves in the world after they have been written. On these occasions it is as if the workings of the inner world, the confabulations of the writer, had somehow seeped through into the outer world; as if there were a reflective symmetry between the devices of the imagination and events in reality, a kind of sympathetic magic, which is the idea that you can influence an outcome by concentrating your energy on an analogous object, invoking the desired effect through similitude. Georges Bataille refers to something of the kind when he describes writing as a form of contagion, the conjuring of contagious energies. This can happen either by accident, or intentionally.’ (The Vagabond’s Breakfast).

It is not too much of a leap, from here, to consider a kind of retrocausality at work, ‘with the unconsciousness of the predestined,’ as Robert Louis Stevenson phrased it, in an essay describing how he came to write Treasure Island. I love the idea of the ‘unconsciousness of the predestined’. It encapsulates the idea of inspiration (in its traditional sense) alongside that of the future determining the present. But is this all the fantasy of the over-excited literary mind? I’m not sure it is. It seems quite feasible that the present – or ‘now’, as we conventionally imagine it – is an illusion, and that we live in a universe ‘shot through with retrocausality’, in which past, present and future merge inseparably. This would appear to make sense in the quantum world too. Consider this, from the  17 Feb issue of New Scientist:

‘In its marriage of space and time, Einstein’s great theory [of general relativity] fatally undermines the concept of “now”. What is happening “now” in a particular location depends on where you are and how fast you’re moving, so two different observers may see different things at the same time in the exact same spot. This makes “now” an illusion. Time doesn’t really pass at all, and our perception that it does is due to our limited perspective on the world. In reality, past, present and future form a single, ever-existing block.

In a block universe, quantum retrocausality wouldn’t look so strange. If the past and the future coexist – if past events don’t fade away before future ones come into being – the future could easily influence the past. . . But if the quantum world is a block universe shot through with retrocausality, why don’t we see retrocausality in our everyday lives? After all, we are all made of quantum stuff. The answer boils down to quantum uncertainty. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. So there are features of the quantum world that are persistently hidden from us, and this is ultimately what allows for retrocausation without letting us send signals to the past.’

While I don’t claim to understand all of this, I can get the gist, I think – at least to the point where a terrible kind of clarity forms itself; and I can envisage the present – insofar as it exists – as being as much the consequence of the future as of the past. Which raises the question of where to go from ‘here’.

To be continued.