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Borges and the infinite dance of entropy

24 Apr


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 stranger 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 librarian in ‘The Book of Sand’, these ‘insensate stones that propagate themselves’ are an abomination: they too defile and corrupt reality. He 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, as he himself wrote, he was preoccupied 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 endlessly in the infinite dance of entropy.

Waylaid by a man-root in the Pyrenees

9 Apr



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.



What if the future determines the present?

6 Apr


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.






I have wasted my life

24 Mar



Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.


When I first read the poem – my friend Clare Potter showed it to me after she had been using it for teaching – I was a little shocked by that last line, not sure what to make of it.

Since I am currently teaching a microfiction class, I decided to introduce my charges to a wonderful exhibition of photographs currently on show at the National Museum of Wales. ‘Swaps’ contains examples of the private collection of Welsh photographer David Hurn, the pictures he has acquired from photographer friends over half a century. It was only after re-reading the poem that I realised – for reasons I will describe below – that it might serve very well as a preface to visiting the exhibition.

So I researched the poem a little, and found a couple of interesting articles. In one of them, from the Paris Review, by the wonderfully named Dan Piepenbring, the author asks, of the last line: ‘is it a lament? Is it a joke, a kind of boast? Did Wright intend to undercut or to bolster his pastoral scene with it? Could it be a winking response to Rilke, whose ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ concludes with the imperative “You must change your life”?

But what of the poet himself? In an interview published two years before his death, Wright told Bruce Henricksen that he thought the line was “a religious statement”:

‘here I am and I’m not straining myself and yet I’m happy at this moment, and perhaps I’ve been wastefully unhappy in the past because through my arrogance or whatever, and in my blindness, I haven’t allowed myself to pay true attention to what was around me. And a very strange thing happened. After I wrote the poem and after I published it, I was reading among the poems of the eleventh-century Persian poet, Ansari, and he used exactly the same phrase at a moment when he was happy. He said, “I have wasted my life.” Nobody gave him hell for giving up iambics. You can’t win.’

Ben Lerner, writing in the London Review of Books, also says something that might relate to Wright’s poem:

‘Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.’ Perhaps that comes close to explicating James Wright’s final line: the Perfect Poem never exists; indeed (as Lerner would insist) every poem is a failure, and the reason every poem is a failure goes something like this: ‘you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.’

The novelist David Mitchell, who apparently keeps a copy of the poem pinned above his desk, regards it as a kind of exhortation to ‘be observant’:

‘I hear him [James Wright] exhale it with a wry laugh: I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks—but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life—he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry—the ironic half-bark of a laugh.

For me, the poem’s chief value is as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see.

We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.’

For myself, I believe that the poem can be read as a paradoxically joyful manifesto to other readers (and, especially, to writers). I have no idea why it makes me feel good about life, when the ending is – at first sight – so dismally self-judgemental. That is the wonder of good poetry: that we are not limited to one response, that we can enjoy multiple responses, even ones that seemingly overlap or even contradict each other.

Perhaps the poem is, at heart, an entreaty not to be distracted, or rather, not to be distracted to the point of confusion: but to look closely, to watch the world. There is, after all, a close relationship between looking closely, to seeing – as expressed so lyrically in the first twelve lines of the poem – and the act of writing itself. You learn, in David Mitchell’s words, to look at the relationship ‘between objects and people and light and time and mood and air’. And animals, I would add. And fire, and water, and rock and grass and leaves. And this watching, this capacity to experience the moment, is something that, of all the arts,  photography does best. As David Hurn puts it, in the notes to one of his favourite photographs: ‘What photography does terribly well is to point out how peculiar and how wonderful the world is. It allows you to see and point out to somebody the things they might not have seen themselves’. Which, of course, goes for poetry too, even if every poem is a failure.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker & Sympathetic Magic

12 Mar

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There is a moment in the film Stalker when the Writer, after a terrifying journey down a long tunnel known as The Meat Grinder, discovers a round metallic cylinder or container, a little over a metre in diameter, into which he peers, picks up a rock, and lets it fall. According to Zona, Geoff Dyer’s brilliant study of the film (and much more besides), ‘the stone . . . makes no sound when it lands, because there is no splash or clang at all, and then, after ten or twelve seconds, there is an echoey, clanging splash suggesting that the drop is about the height of the Empire State Building at least . . . Given the depth, it’s quite ballsy of Writer to perch on the rim of this drum – a drum that is in fact a mile-deep shaft – as if on the edge of a paddling pool made from Meccano.’

And here’s the thing:  I was thinking about the film today just before I had a meeting with a visual artist, who in the course of our conversation – she was talking about Gilles Deleuze, actually – said that what Deleuze didn’t understand, what he couldn’t grasp, was that for the artist the abyss is vital, and the entire life project of the artist might be to perch on the precipice, on the rim above the abyss – I can’t remember precisely what she said, but it was something like that – and this image of the Writer flashed past me, perched as though oblivious (the adjective is apt) on the edge of that cylindrical precipice, that terrifyingly deep pit or abyss.  And I was so grateful for that insight, and because that sequence in the film has stuck with me, I knew exactly how to visualise it. It was one of those synchronicities that imbue the passing of the days with what I like to think of as a form of Sympathetic Magic.

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And then, shortly after, is the moment in the film when the eponymous Stalker, Writer and Professor have just abandoned their quest, the room in which they were to accomplish the fulfilment of their innermost wishes left unvisited, nothing achieved, no one satisfied or appeased, just life or what remains of it continuing as before, but the participants more exhausted, more shattered, shredded by an inexorable sense of finality – in spite of everything having been said, and nothing said, and none of it mattering – this is the moment when the rain comes down, and with it, if this is possible, descends both a consummate despair and a terrible cleansing, as though the almost unbearable build up of tension (some might say the unbearable nature of the whole cinematic experience) is washed away in the downpour, the rain that falls and falls without mercy or relief on the souls of the living, and what has been left behind , and what is to come, and which holds only that tiny flicker of hope carried by a child, nothing more . . .

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And this is the scene in the bar, afterwards. The dark colours could be out of Rembrandt. Thank God for the dog, just visible to the left of the screen. How strange that the presence of an animal is the element that most imbues the scene with humanity.




Ten ground rules for microfiction

3 Mar


Since I am currently teaching a course on microfiction, that weird mutating gene/genre that swerves and sways between the prose poem and the short story, I thought I would post a translation of some points made by Andrés Neuman a few years ago in his excellent blog Microrreplicas.

The points are succinct and aphoristic. I have opted for a fairly literal translation,  but not, I hope, too literal . . .

  1. Brief is not the same as short: brevity shuts up on time, shortness ahead of time.
  2. The mission of every microfiction is to grow without being seen.
  3. The most striking thing about the microfiction is not its tiny size but its radical structure.
  4. Punctuate with a scalpel.
  5. A microfiction begins in quotation marks and ends with ellipsis.
  6. Verbs fly, nouns run, adjectives weigh down.
  7. The temptation of the joke is the termite of microfiction.
  8. Characters in a microfiction pass by in profile.
  9. The microfiction needs brave readers, which is to say those who can put up with incompleteness.
  10. The briefer it seems, the more slowly it is read.

Perhaps a few of these points merit elaboration or illustration, but I think I’d prefer to let them settle in their new language for a few days . . .



Welsh or Elegant?

25 Feb

Customers at London’s exclusive Fortnum & Mason (The Queen’s Grocer) are presented with an unusual choice: would they prefer their rarebit Elegant or Welsh? Evidently these terms are mutually exclusive, so I cannot imagine affluent shoppers really have much of a struggle making up their minds.