I have been thinking about Jorge Luis Borges lately. There’s nothing very unusual in that, I think about him frequently, but recently I have been thinking about Borges because I keep thinking of persistent claims in contemporary politics of representing the “people” or, more precisely, the “real people.” I will admit it drives me nuts, and at least partly it is personal as I feel pretty sure that I am not among them. Who are they, these “real people”? Perhaps more fundamentally, who are the people who are not real? What does that even mean?
The reason this makes me think of Borges is not that he was a beacon of democracy. Far from it. It is well-known that his attitude to the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s was at best embarrassingly accepting. During this period he stated that he had lost his belief in democracy as always being the preferable form of government, doubting that the majority of people in Argentina would know enough about politics to make qualified choices. So a great democrat he was not. I have still been thinking about Borges though, because of his ability, in his stories, to always question universal truths and take them apart by their own logic, and because of how he repeatedly returned to questions regarding the logics of representation: In language, in science, and in politics. Perhaps because of his own doubts, but of course I cannot say if that was the case.
In The Congress (El Congreso) from The Book of Sand (El libro de arena), published in 1975, Borges writes of The Congress of the World. He describes it as an elusive society of a small group of people aiming to form a congress to represent all people of all nations, but it soon runs into difficulties. For example Don Alejandro, the founder and President of the society, is a wealthy Uruguayan land owner. As such, is he able to represent each of these groups? Founding fathers, land owners, the wealthy, all Uruguayans? If so, why should it stop there? Could it not include his other traits? Could he not also represent “red-bearded men and men sitting in armchairs”? Or can Don Alejandro at the end of the day, if he represents everything that defines him, only represent Don Alejandro?
Further complications arise. Aiming to build a library fitting of this new Congress, the group’s first decision is to begin with a reference library of atlases and encyclopedias. Soon it is suggested that a reference library will not suffice, at the very least all classical works in all languages should also be included. However having started the collection of books deemed worthy for inclusion, one member suggests that there is no book so bad that it does not contain some good. The library continues to grow and this eventually leads them to the question of what the official language of the Congress should be. English, French, Latin … or perhaps Esparanto? Or Volapük? In the midst of these never-ending discussions, Don Alejandro realises the futility of their mission to represent all people and in an act of violence burns the entire library of assembled knowledge in front of the shocked members of the Congress. “The task we have undertaken is so vast that it embraces—as I now recognise—the entire world.”… “The Congress of the World began the instant the world itself began, and will go on when we are dust. There is no place it is not.” Thus going from the ideal of representation of all people, a representation of the world, to no possible representation at all. With this in mind, perhaps it was inevitable that the word “Volapük,” the name of the constructed international language created by a priest on directions from God, eventually, in some languages such as Danish, came to mean simply “nonsense.”
In 1941, many years before writing The Congress, Borges wrote what would become one of his best known stories, The Library of Babel (La biblioteca de Babel). In this he writes of a library where each book is four hundred and ten pages, each page forty lines, each line eighty letters and composed of an alphabet of twenty-five different symbols. The library contains every possible book within this format. A vast, but not infinite number. Yet, no one knows if the library repeats itself. It is said that “the universe (which others call the library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of galleries.” As is the case in The Congress the vastness of the library means that it is practically impossible to establish order, to find meaning. How to know what is true or false in the books? How to find the books that make any sense at all when by far the majority of them are largely meaningless combinations of letters? How to even know what is meaningful or not? Two sects search for order and meaning in two different ways. One believes in the myth of “the register.” A single mythical book that would explain or make sense of the library which is the “universe.” If all possible books are in the library there must also be one which is the key to the order of all the others. The dream of the holy script explaining the universe. A different sect on the other hand starts destroying the books they deem meaningless or wrong, to impose order. Like Don Alejandro’s desperate burning of The Congress’ library in the face of overwhelming information. This book burning seems a parallel to the very contemporary approach of denying knowledge that does not fit into a perceived universe. However the job of book burning itself is almost limitless. Keeping in mind that if all possible combinations of letters are there, there will be a huge number of books almost identical to the ones destroyed, deferring by only a single letter. This gives grounds for hope. It’s difficult to destroy all knowledge.
I’d like to mention one more of Borges’ stories investigating representation. A story based on this famous paragraph from Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie & Bruno. Concluded (1893).
“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
Borges re-visited this theme and described “a map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it,” in the very short piece called On Exactitude in Science. As in The Congress the only way to perfectly represent the world is … the world.
An alternative way of tackling this “exactitude in science,” is suggested by Alfred Jarry in his novel Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien) where we are introduced to the science of Pataphysics.
“Pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general. Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one.”
Carroll, and with him Borges, has gone as far as possible down one road, taking representation ad absurdum, while Jarry has gone off as far as possible in the completely opposite direction, yet they all end up in the same place, where only the thing itself can represent itself. Instead of burning books to create a coherent order, or instead of insisting that the only valuable map is the one that covers everything, maybe it is possible to follow Jarry down a road where there are differences, but also representation: Differences that do not have to be eradicated or included under one vision and where you do not divide the world into one that is real and another that is supposedly not and whose views it is therefore legitimate to ignore. Let’s go along with Jarry for a little bit.
Written in 1898, but only published posthumously in 1911, Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician is a difficult novel to summarise and it would probably be beside the point to try and do so. I think it does have to represent itself. It starts fairly down to earth though, with the prosaic problem of Dr. Faustroll being evicted from his apartment due to unpaid rent. We are then introduced to pataphysics as described above and furthermore described as “the science of imaginary solutions.” Pataphysics, it turns out, has, by its very nature of being the science of the particular and of imaginary solutions, many potential definitions. In pataphysics every event is extraordinary and the novel proceeds along this “science of imaginary solutions.” Dr. Faustroll, forced to leave his apartment, escapes on his bed, which is now a boat 12 meters long and made of a copper mesh, on a trip, over land, from Paris to Paris, by sea …. Joining him in the boat is the bailiff in charge of evicting him, who documents their travels, as well as a baboon named Bosse-de-Nage who’s only words are “Ha Ha.” His only words perhaps, but often repeated and always open to new interpretations. They set off on their journey, away from unpaid rent, and into a Paris of imaginary solutions. A journey that could perhaps be described as that of a flaneur, his creditor and his monkey’s proto-surrealist-situationist-boat-trip into infinity.
Jarry died very young, but left a lasting legacy, influencing DADA, Surrealism, the theatre of the absurd and punk, among many others, and it’s not difficult to see why. His best known work is probably the theatre play Ubu Roi, which has long become an anti-authoritarian classic. Jarry developed it from a school comedy written by a group of friends about one of their teachers. In Jarry’s play, a parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Ubu kills the king of an imaginary Poland and takes over power. Ubu is fat, ugly, vulgar, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil, a caricature of a corrupt and incompetent power which sounds all too familiar 120 years later. Jarry’s approach of the science of the particular and imaginary solutions proves a powerful tool as critique of authority and power, and in bringing down established notions of knowledge and order.
Staying with classic theatre plays on the nature of power and returning to the question of representation I think of a short story by Adolfo Bioy Casares called Cato. The story concerns the actor Jorge Davol, an underrated actor who finally gets his big break as the leading role in the theatre play Cato. Written in 1712 by Joseph Addison, Cato centers on the Roman senator of the same name and his resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar. The play became an early iconic work for republicanism, and the story goes that George Washington had it performed to his soldiers before battle in the fight against the British empire. In Bioy Casares’ story there is no such idealism. The play is chosen simply because it was old enough for there to be no royalties to be paid. With the short story set in an unnamed dictatorship the play is however quickly seized upon by revolutionaries as symbolizing their fight for freedom against tyranny, and the actor Jorge Davol becomes a leading symbol of the resistance. When asked about his stance on the revolution Davol answers in the words of Cato. He is essentially an actor and thus he answers in character and is celebrated as a hero of the revolution after the dictatorship is overthrown. However his role has, literally, been played and he slowly fades from memory until one day he is again playing his glorified role as Cato in a re-staging of the play. This time though, with the intervening change in political power, the play is celebrated by counter-revolutionaries and Jorge Davol is now seen as an enemy of the state that once adored him. In the end he is killed, supposedly by a political fanatic.
Adolfo Bioy Casares was born in 1914 and, like Borges with whom he was close friends and co-wrote several books, lived through a politically turbulent 20th century in Argentina. Cato—published in 1991, late in his life—comes across as rather resigned, yet has a humour and love for turning things on their head, as could be said of most of Bioy Casares’ writing. Actually, Cato more than anything reminds me of Hergé’s Tintin and the Broken Ear (L’Oreille cassée), first serialised between 1935 and 1937, where revolutions and counter-revolutions at some points change faster than you turn the page.
From Borges and Bioy Casares to one more Argentinian writer, Julio Cortázar, born in 1914, the same year as Bioy Casares. Cortázar however did not stay in Argentina. He quit his job as a teacher due to political pressure under Peron and in 1951 moved to Paris where, speaking of universal congresses, he first worked as an interpreter at UNESCO. He lived in Paris for the rest of his life and in the 1970s—being an outspoken supporter of Allende in Chile, of Castro’s Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua—he was officially exiled from Argentina by the military junta. His work, like that of Bioy Casares, always looking for moments of destabilization, where perceived reality and world view is often turned on its head, became gradually more explicit in its political connotations. In 1962, published as part of his book Cronopios and Famas (Historias de Cronipios y de Famas) he wrote the story A small story tending to illustrate the uncertainty of the stability within which we like to believe we exist, or laws could give ground to the exceptions, unforeseen disasters, or improbabilities, and I want to see you there. A wonderful long title for a very short story of just over two pages. A title celebrating the utopian, and constructive, aspects of uncertainty which would have been a fit for Alfred Jarry’s novel about Dr. Faustroll’s adventures as well.
In this story a new executive committee of the OCLUSIOM is to be elected by its member states. We don’t know exactly what the OCLUSIUM is, but it is some kind of international political union of nation states reminiscent of a communist Soviet Union, or possibly a UN-like organisation, given Cortázar’s own experiences working within that system. Six of the seven members of the executive committee are involved in a helicopter accident, and though initially surviving, they are subsequently brought to a hospital where they all die after having “mistakenly” been given a drug overdose. There is great confusion and doubt as to the future, and thus a new committee must be elected by the member states. “Everything was going beautifully, no troubles with regulations,” the system is working perfectly. One by one the candidate from each member state is announced. First up, the only surviving member from the previous committee Felix Smith. Next candidate, Felix Voll is unanimously elected, applause follows, then Felix Romero, unanimously elected, more applause, another vote, Felix Lupesco, elected but a certain uneasiness starts showing itself. The Greek candidate Felix Paparemologos wins his seat by a majority but the uneasiness is spreading. Then follows Felix Abib of Pakistan and finally the Argentine candidate Felix Camusso. They are all elected, but with great uncertainty. The established system, until a moment ago absolutely stabile and “beautifully” regulated, is suddenly under scrutiny as it turns out that every single member of the executive committee is called Felix. The beauty of the story of course lies in that fact that the first name of the committee members is in principle irrelevant, but in the moment where every single member has the same first name, statistically highly unlikely, the whole system is put into question. The system collapses not due to what in the first place seems like obvious corruption (and murder) or a rational political questioning of its structure, purpose or power, but due to a possibly completely irrelevant and random element of chance. The one factor that actually indicates nothing about class, family, nationality, political alliances etc. is the one that ends up making the system look suspect. As a final irony it is important to note that the name Felix comes from Latin and means “happy.” A fitting name for what many an executive power aims to project. Representing the real people. Representing Felix. Don’t ask.
This text I’ve been writing is of course in itself something of a contradiction: Trying to form a text out of texts all concerned with the impossibilities of representing them. Even worse, aiming as I was for a variety of diverse arguments that could destabilise claims such as those of representing the real people and then doing so by the way of writings by exclusively white men, myself included, and as far as I know, all of them straight. It is a representative disaster. I was one step away from doing like Don Alejandro, burning everything at the last minute, feeling that this text had failed completely. It is certainly not representative of either the people, the real people or the unreal people, but I decided I should better let it be, with all its failings, than burn it. At least it is not perfect.