It seems like I should be blogging again, and I’ve been thinking about lists lately, so that’s where I’ll begin.
Last week, I was reading a copy of The Book of Fantasy (edited by Borges, Ocampo, and Casares) that I’d picked up among the wonderful selection of cool stuff at The Green Hand.
That led me to re-reading Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which contains this sentence with a great list:
Now, I had in my hands a substantial fragment of the complete history of an unknown planet, with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological terrors and the sound of its dialects, its emperors and its oceans, its minerals, its birds, and its fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical arguments, all clearly stated, coherent, without any apparent dogmatic intention or parodic undertone. (Translated by James E. Irby)
Borges is always great for lists. They’re up there with labyrinths, mirrors, books, and weird quasi-pseudohistory in terms of tropes that keep recurring in his stories. A really great list is like a poem or a song in the way it brings together things that don’t seem to belong. Architecture/playing cards/algebra/fire.
Lewis Carroll staked out this territory in “The Walrus and the Carpenter”:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
Every list is a story, with a sense of movement and development. Carroll builds his list, in part, by moving from single words linked by an initial S sound, from shorter words to longer words, and eventually to phrases, questions, in fact. In the Tlön list, Borges builds most of the list out of pairs, except when there’s a run of topics from natural history, that segue to algebra, jump to fire, and then come back to the “theological and metaphysical arguments” in which he’ll wander for much of the rest of the story.
In Borges’ story “The Aleph,” there’s a truly virtuoso list at the moment when the narrator glimpses the Aleph, this thing that distills the whole universe to a single point:
I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny — Philemon Holland’s — and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe. (Translated by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in collaboration with the author)
That list reflects the story’s theme and encapsulates its contents, and it contains stories within it. It plays with combinations that are random-poetic (Tigers/pistons/bison/tides/armies) and others that are only too meaningful in the context of the story (in which the narrator’s unrequited love for the late Beatriz is never far in the background).
There’s one telling detail shared by Borges’ two lists–playing cards, which, like a list, have a sequence that can be shuffled.
It is possible that, in one of the volumes of The First Encylopedia of Tlön, or in one of the Aleph’s innumerable glimpse-facets, there is a game which is played with the elements of the lists in Borges’ stories. Or perhaps some lost system of divination…
I’ve been tidying the story descriptions on my fiction page, pruning the dead links, etc.
Quite a few of my early stories appeared at The Fortean Bureau, which stopped publishing in 2006. That’s something like an eon and a half in internet time, so I’m really grateful it remained as an online archive for several years, although it’s gone now.
For some reason, the ones with the wordier titles seem to stick around longer.
There probably is no scientific reason for this.
Until recently, I was writing short flash fiction stories every week or two for The Daily Cabal.
Now that the Cabal’s wrapped up, I figured I’d get back into the swing of blogging again with a couple debriefing posts on the Cabal experience.
Here are my favorite twelve of the stories I wrote for the project. I don’t know if these always succeeded in doing what I was hoping they’d do, but each captures something that I don’t think I could have communicated any other way.
Paul Pope’s Adam Strange serial was my favorite part of DC’s Wednesday Comics this summer.
Among the things that I particularly liked are Lovern Kindzierski’s desert sky colors and the ornithopter’s squiggly shadow on the rocks, and the way Pope’s paced the anecdote. Great stuff.
I’m always a sucker for some revved-up, reimagined folk music, and have been checking out what I can find online by The Imagined Village, who do some great versions of English folk music. (It’s basically Eliza and Martin Carthy, plus assorted members of Afro-Celt Soundsystem, plus Sheila Chandra, plus Billy Bragg, plus even more folks with whom I’m less familiar.)
This video of Cold, Haily Windy Night.
This video of Hard Times in Old England
The Day of the Dead is on my list of festivals I’d like to go to one day.
They seem to do a pretty good job of it in Tucson, witness this picture.
And what’s in the photo isn’t half as interesting as the context as described in the caption:
…An undulating snake of skeletons, bogeywomen and the deceased wend their way beneath a phalanx of stilted, Ram-headed giants glowing red with roadflares. When the train passed everyone screamed with glee. To the right you can see the gynormous pumpkin of wishes pulled by the Horned Man.
(More cool stuff on their gallery.)
Came across a reference to an interesting-sounding book, the Codex Seraphinus, an encyclopedia from an imagined world, in a cryptic alphabet and unknown language, but copiously illustrated.
I tried to summon one up via interlibrary loan, but (alas) the only copy in Maine is apparently non-circulating.
However, a Google image search turns up lots of scans of random pages. (Including some by someone much luckier at the interlibrary loan game.) It seems like the kind of book that fits well with seeing only a random assortment of pages, and I think I’ll be doing some random paging over the next few days.
I came across the Codex via a comment on Boing Boing to a John Hodgman post on gnomes. Which I mention because of the inherent humor value of Hodgman+gnomes and because the post contained the following great quote: “Like the best books, it is unclear exactly who it was meant to reach.”
Hodgman, of course, is known for being a PC, a resident expert, and the author of The Areas of My Expertise, which won the Sidewise Award in all the more enlightened alternate universes (as I’m sure his new one will as well.)
…it’s my new website. Jeremy‘s brought over the dusty remains of my previous site, and I’m working on updating the new site here. But, as you can see, there isn’t much to see yet. There should be more by, say, the middle of June.
Or, say, the end of October.