Monday, February 22, 2010

"The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name"

[William-Adolphe Bouguereau: Love on the Look Out (1890)]

I imagine you're all pretty familiar with the phrase above. It actually comes from a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's friend, better known by his nickname "Bosie". The poem, "Two Loves", first appeared in a short-lived student magazine called The Chameleon in 1896:

'What is thy name?' He said, 'My name is Love.'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing, said the other, 'Have thy will,
I am the love that dare not speak its name.'

But actually that aspect of the matter doesn't interest me too much. I certainly don't want to go back over the twice-told tale of the Oscar Wilde trial. What would be the point? What fascinates me is the idea of the power of something - person or concept - which dares not speak its name.

Jorge Luis Borges expresses it interestingly in his story "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" [The Garden of Forking Paths], from his 1941 book of the same name:

– En una adivinanza cuyo tema es el ajedrez, ¿cuál es la única palabra prohibida? Reflexioné un momento y repuse:

– La palabra

– Precisamente – dijo Albert –.
El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan es una enorme adivinanza, o parábola, cuyo tema es el tiempo ; esa causa recóndita le prohíbe la mención de su nombre. Omitir siempre una palabra, recurrir a metáforas ineptas y a perífrasis evidentes, es quizá el modo más enfático de indicarla. Es el modo tortuoso que prefirió, en cada uno de los meandros de su infatigable novela, el oblicuo Ts’ui Pên.

- Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones: El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan / Artificios. 1941, & 1944 (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1987): 114.

["In a puzzle whose solution is the game of chess, what is the one prohibited word?"

I reflected for a moment and replied: "The word chess."

"Precisely," said Albert. "The Garden of Forking Paths is an immense puzzle, or parable, whose subject is time; that hidden motive prohibits the mention of its name. Always to omit a word, to resort to awkward metaphors and obvious periphrases instead, is perhaps the most emphatic way to signal it. It is the tortuous way which the ingenious Ts’ui Pên followed, through every meander of his interminable novel." (my translation)]

So if The Garden of Forking Paths, the imaginary novel by the equally imaginary Ts’ui Pên, turns out to be an expression of his theory of time - indicated by the fact that of all the philosophical problems that preoccupied him, this is only one which is not discussed in its pages, what might "The Garden of Forking Paths," a short story by a certain Jorge Luis Borges, actually turn out to be about?

Like Nabokov's Lolita (1955), Borges's story takes the form of a murderer's first-person confession, with occasional editorial notes and interventions. This editor, presumably a patriotic Englishman, takes issue with some of the statements in the story (the "hipótesis odiosa y estrafalaria" [bizarre and despicable assumption] that an officer in British Intelligence might shoot a spy in cold blood under the pretext of "arresting" him, for instance {102}). What's more, the first two pages of the statement are "missing" - for reasons which we may be able to conjecture later.

The story concerns a crucial meeting between a Chinese spy, Yu Tsun, working for the Germans during the First World War, who just happens to be descended from a celebrated Chinese man of letters called Ts'ui Pên, and a British scholar named Stephen Albert, who just happens to have devoted his life to translating the fragmentary manuscripts of a novel left behind by Ts'ui Pên on his death centuries before ("la mano de un forastero lo asesinó" [the hand of a foreigner assassinated him] {106}). An outrageous coincidence? Of course.

When it turns out that the real reason for their meeting is that the spy has to kill someone with the surname "Albert" in order to get this crucial word into the newspapers on the eve of a planned British attack on the French town of Albert, we begin to see the coincidence as more of a cruel irony.

When it turns out that the British scholar has solved the mystery of Ts'ui Pen's allegedly-fragmentary novel (entitled The Garden of Forking Paths), and demonstrated that it is a huge puzzle whose answer is "time" ("He confrontado centenares de manuscritos, he corregido los errores que la negligencia de los copistas ha introducido, he conjeturado el plan de ese caos, he creído restablecer el orden primordial, he traducido la obra entera; me consta que no emplea una sola vez la palabra tiempo" [I have collated hundreds of manuscripts, I have corrected the errors that the negligence of copyists have introduced, I have constructed a map of this chaos, I have attempted to re-establish the original order, I have translated the entire work; and I can state that not once is the word time used in it] {114}), then we begin to suspect that there is more to this series of coincidences even than that.

Rather than just being an elegant puzzle, the novel (according to Albert, at any rate) embodies Ts'ui Pen's theory of cyclic time, his belief in "infinitas series de tiempos, en una red creciente y vertiginosa de tiempos divergentes, convergentes y paralelos" [an infinite series of times, a growing, vertiginous net of divergent, convergent and parallel times] {114}:

No existimos en la mayoría de esas tiempos; en algunos existe usted y no yo; en otros yo, no usted; en otros, los dos. En éste, que en favorable azar me depara, usted ha llegado a mi casa; en otro, usted, al atravesar el jardín, me ha encontrado muerto; en otro, yo digo estas mismos palabras, pero soy un error, un fantasma. {114-15}

[In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I don't; in others, I do and you don't; in still others, both of us do. In this one, which a favourable chance has dealt me, you have come to my house; in another, when you came through the garden, you found me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a phantasm.]

There's clearly far more than chance behind the meeting of these two. Nor can it be seen as purely accidental when, in this particular time-continuum, our narrator picks up his pistol and shoots Albert dead, immediately after declaring his gratitude and veneration for him.

The story, then, is a meditation on the subject of time, but also on the fickleness of human emotions - our propensity to be driven to monstrous acts by essentially frivolous and self-created motives. What is the missing word from Borges' own story? Such a question can obviously not be answered through the medium of a translation, so, like Stephen Albert, I have had to return to the original Spanish for an answer.

First, though, another sidelight on the question (rather like Borges' narrator's invocation - at a crucial stage in his own progress - of the Thousand and One Nights, and the unforgettable night when "la reina Shahrazad (por una mágica distracción del copista) se pone a referir textualmente le historia de las 1001 Noches, con riesgo de llegar otra vez a la noche en que la refiere, y así hasta lo infinito" [Queen Scheherazade (through a magical slip of the copyist) begins to retell word-for-word the story of the 1001 Nights, at risk of again reaching the night she is in, and so on into infinity] {111}).

One of the most controversial aspects of Hans Walter Gabler's (alleged) "corrected text" of Joyce's Ulysses, unveiled with so much hoopla in the mid-eighties, only to sink almost immediately under the weight of scholarly disapproval, was Gabler's claim to know substantially better than the author himself. Gabler not only believed that a scientific editor, armed with knowledge of every manuscript, proof and printed textual variant, and all the sets of corrections to each, could navigate among them with more certainty than poor purblind sottish Jimmy Joyce, he proceeded to act on this belief in compiling his edition.

The most famous (or notorious) instance is discussed approvingly by Richard Ellmann (at that time the undoubted doyen of Joyce scholarship) in his preface to Gabler's edition - perhaps on the principle of putting the biggest mouthful to swallow first:

For purposes of interpretation, the most significant of the many small changes in Mr. Gabler's text has to do with the question that Stephen puts to his mother at the climax of the brothel scene, itself the climax of the novel. Stephen is appalled by his mother's ghost, but like Ulysses he seeks information from her. His mother says, "You sang that song to me. Love's bitter mystery." Stephen responds "eagerly," as the stage direction says, "Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men." She fails to provide it. This passage has been much interpreted. Most readers have supposed that the word known to all men must be love, though one critic maintains that it is death, and another that it is synteresis; the latter sounds like the one word unknown to all men.

You begin to see the relevance of this discursus to our discussion of a problem whose answer is "chess", and where the word chess cannot appear? of a novel about time where time is never mentioned? of a story about ... whatever Borges' story (or book of stories) might ultimately be thought to be about? Ellmann continues:

Mr. Gabler has been able to settle this matter by recovering a passage left out of the scene that takes place in the National Library. Whether Joyce omitted it deliberately or not is still a matter of conjecture and debate. Mr. Gabler postulates the skip of an eye from one ellipsis to another, leading to the omission of several lines - the longest omission in the book. The principal lines read in manuscript: "Do you know what you are talking about? Love, yes. Word known to all men. Amor vero aliquid alicui bonum vult unde et ea quae concupiscimus ..."

The Latin conjoins two phrases in Thomas Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas is distinguishing between love, which, as he says in the first six words, "genuinely wishes another's good," and, in the next five, a selfish desire to secure our own pleasure "on account of which we desire these things," meaning lovelessly and for our own good, not another's. In Joyce's play Exiles, Richard explains love to the skeptical Robert as meaning "to wish someone well."

Now that the word known to all men is established as love, Stephen's question to his mother's ghost can be seen to connect with the hope his living mother expressed at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that outside Ireland he will learn what the heart is and what it feels.

Even at the time Ellmann must have known he was on shaky ground. There's something very shocking in the notion that that supreme craftsmen among twentieth-century novelists, the precise, painstaking Joyce, might simply have skipped "from one ellipsis to another", and thus not noticed that he'd actually been intending to answer Stephen's mysterious question to his mother all along.

(A green rill of bile trickling from a side of her mouth.) You sang that song to me. Love's bitter mystery.


(Eagerly.) Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.


Who saved you the night you jumped into the train at Dalkey with Paddy Lee? Who had pity for you when you were sad among the strangers? Prayer is all powerful. Prayer for the suffering souls in the Ursuline manual, and forty days' indulgence. Repent, Stephen.


The ghoul! Hyena!

I'm sorry. I just can't swallow that he somehow "forgot" to answer the question, or that it would have been "better" to settle the question once and for all by providing a nice quick answer with a bit of Latin thrown in as a bonus ...

In any case, you can easily take a look for yourself, if you like. The passage can be found in Episode 15 [Circe], the famous "Nighttown" sequence of Ulysses. If you wish to see how it looked in its original printing, you can find it on page 540 of Jeri Johnson's edition of Ulysses: The 1922 Text [The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.]. Gabler's emended version can be found either in his original 1984 three-volume critical edition, or else in the diplomatic text published as Ulysses: The Corrected Text [Ed. Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe & Claus Melchior. 1984. Preface by Richard Ellmann. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986].

So how does all that help us with "The Garden of Forking Paths"? To put you out of your misery, I can now reveal: that I have checked the Spanish text of the story, and have found a series of "awkward metaphors and obvious periphrases" for the Spanish word "amor" [love] or "amar" [to love]. I find "querer" [desire]; I also find a suggested motivation for the narrator's determination to succeed in his quest in his desire to overcome the arrogant European colour-prejudice of his German paymaster against the "yellow" [amarillo] races: "Yo quería probarle que un amarillo podía salvar a sus ejércitos" [I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies] {104}.

This essentially perverse desire, which inspires him to waste his own life and that of another man, a modest man, yet "que para mí no es menos que Goethe" [who for me is as great as Goethe] {104}, inspires him to set aside all other natural emotions: veneration for his ancestors, respect for this noble-minded student of Chinese culture, and, yes, love for his fellow man.

And yet the equation is not quite so neat as that. "In a puzzle whose answer is the chess, what is the one prohibited word?" As Borges' story reaches its climax, with Stephen Albert's explanation of Ts’ui Pên's novel (or labyrinth) complete, and the English spycatcher Richard Madden (another significant name?) advancing on our narrator from the garden, he concludes his account of their conversation thus:

En todos – articulé no sin un temblor – yo agradezco y venero su recreación del jardín de Ts’ui Pên.

– No en todos – murmuró con una sonrisa -. El tiempo se bifurca perpetuamente hacía innumerables futuros. En uno de ellos soy su enemigo.
– El provenir ya existe – respondí –, pero yo soy su amigo.

["In all futures," I said not without trembling, "I appreciate and venerate your reconstruction of the garden of Ts’ui Pên."

"Not in all," he murmured with a smile. "Time bifurcates perpetually into innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy."
"That future already exists," I replied, "But I am your friend."

"I am the enemy you killed, my friend," as Wilfred Owen put it in his own great First World War poem "Strange Meeting". More to the point, though, the word our narrator Yu Tsun uses here, "amigo", is clearly derived from "amor". Does that invalidate my point? Is it the equivalent of a partial, shaded reference to the word "chess" (checkmate, say?), or to "time" (temporary, timely?)

It isn't enough simply to say (or not say) the word "love", apparently. The essential thing is to know what it means, to feel it as one speaks the word, to break out of the cycle of destruction which is Yu Tsun's unwilling murder, and the whole immense madness of the Western Front. In that sense I am forced to agree with Ellmann's analysis, and the way he connects the word with:

Leopold Bloom, who in an equally tense moment in Barney Kiernan's pub declares, "But it's no use. ... Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life." "What?" he is asked. "Love," Bloom is forced to say, and adds in embarrassment, "I mean the opposite of hatred." He drops the subject and leaves. That simple statement of his is immediately mocked by those left behind.

Of course it is. "Love - the opposite of hatred." Its very banality and predictability makes it increasingly difficult to articulate with a straight face.

Borges has found a perversely ingenious way to signal it without ever overtly mentioning it; so (in his own way - in the brothel scene, at least) has Joyce. Gabler and his nemeis John Kidd no doubt take their place in the picture too (as do Oscar and Bosie) - the "monje taoísta o budista" [Taoist or Buddhist monk] {109} who insisted on publishing Ts’ui Pên's manuscript against his family's wishes, and (more equivocally) the "forastero" [foreigner] {106}, who killed him - for whatever reason - before he could finish it.

But which of them is which? In this time, or any other ...


Fatal Paradox said...

An interesting interpretation of Borges' tale...will have to think on it some more. Up until now I've always assumed Ts'ui Pen's actions represented nothing more than a kind of playful nihilism, a decision to answer the irrationality of the universe with deliberate obscurity and yet more unreason (a little like Yeat's 'Irish Airman' who fights for the British imperialists in WWI out of sheer personal whimsy).

I'm also reminded of Borges' protagonist in 'The Ethnographer', who after spending a year or more living with a remote Indian tribe out on the prairie returns his Ivy League college only to then promptly abandon his studies, while refusing to divulge any of the 'secret' cultural practices that he has learned...

Jack Ross said...

I guess I tend to read Borges as far less of a game-player and far more of an - admittedly subtly - engagé artist than used to be orthodox among his interpreters.

Its date, 1941, at the beginning of the war, as well as its setting during the previous world conflict, might also be seen to support reading it as a meditation on the nature of war (and murderous violence) rather than as a pure speculation on the cyclic processes of time.

Richard said...

Have you always seen Borges hat way Jack? [Committed, moral, engaged]

I think in the vast "complexity" of many forking paths and linguistic labyrinths that is Joyce's work or works we keep coming back to certain deep (but essentially simple) basics, as you say - I recall that scene in the pub, where he uses the word love.

I started to reread Ulysses last year but didn't get up to the strange scenes where the characters keep changing. The Circe chapter?

The guilt about his mother (her death) seems to have obsessed Joyce.

But maybe the word known to all men is something else...something unspeakable? It (that which is "unspeakable" as not sayable) could well be "love" though, as that is the word that almost embarrasses us, even disturbs us. It is the word we often fail to use in life. Joyce "failed", as he maybe saw it, to show love to his mother by praying: something he could easily have done. And yet he would then be "lying" ... but he could have then just shown or expressed his love of his mother.

But he simply could not say the word? Or somehow failed to?

I'll have another look at the Borges story...

Jack Ross said...

Richard - I suppose when I first start reading Borges I was attracted by the air of detached, complex abstraction - the dazzle of his work. The more I've found out about him, though: his long struggle with Peron's dictatorship, his horror of the Nazis, the more I read his work as, yes, "committed, moral, engaged."

Fatal Paradox - first of all, I must confess it's a relief to get so considered a reflection from one so knowledgeable as you about Latin American lit. I greatly appreciate your opinion. Just on the question of Yeats's airman, though, isn't the point of the poem that neither side in the conflict speaks for him or his people ("My country is Kiltartan Cross / My countrymen Kiltartan's poor"), which condemns him to this solitary, existential act of the will. He can't stand the world he's been condemned to inhabit, so, rather than "defending" it, defines his sacrifice in purely personal terms. I'm not sure "whimsy" quite expresses the gravitas of that choice, though it certainly expresses its effect. And then, as Yeats himself said, in a poem about 1916, "England may keep faith / When all is said and done" ... It might have proved a step towards freedom to fight for the British empire in the larger conflict. Certainly many nationalists thought so.

Fatal Paradox said...

Agree that "personal whimsy" might not have been the best description of the motivations underpinning Yeats' airman - I guess I was mainly thinking of the statement of nihlistic/world weary indifference at the end of the poem: "I balanced all, brought all to mind/the years to come seemed waste of breath/A waste of breath the years behind/In balance with this life, this death".

The basic idea is though as you have said that all possible choices in the conflict seem to be at one and the same time equally valid and equally pointless...

Richard said...

I went through Borges story twice and your analysis seems to me valid.

Unless Borges was a merciless Joker, the 'clue' does indeed seem to be in the text (that which is not said) - something many readers, perhaps fixed or fixated on the fascination of puzzles and labyrinths, and time and an "invisible novel" analogous to an eternal map of forking time, (I don't think I realized it at all when I first read it, I think I was enamoured with his ideas - such as his later descriptions of the 'infinite book' (the book where the page numbers keep changing and each page can be opened to more and more pages!) in the 'Book of Sand' and much more ...

Your analysis made me also notice that the back ground is war. (Of course it is in a war, but I mean I wanted to read through that to the riddles and ambiguities.

Something (the significance of it being set in WWI) I would have probably not noticed as very important, or not wanted to notice, when I first read the Borges (not in Spanish of course)... I think I just read _through_ all the stories fascinated by the magic.
But this time, a close look, and I feel, yes, in both the airman of 'An Irish Airman Foretells his Death' (who was Robert Gregory as you will know); as in that there is a sense of detachment almost. Not a feeling quite of futility in the case of the airman: yes, the deaths (of ALL in the war were futile - or at the least very much a terrible waste) but not their actions or their lives - but the Borges story - read closely, points to the almost farcical futility of IT all.

After all he has just listened to this wonderful exposition of his ancestor's great work, and discussed the mystery of time, and then he kills the man, who has just been saying all this, who he admires as a Goethe!

And the clue is that something is missed out...I think the reader has to find that in all this metaphysical speculation and wonderful riddling. It is life, or death, and war. War, futile, and savage.

(And this also shows the value of those who know the language to look at originals and comment to others who may not be able to do that.)

But that is not to deny the value of such speculation and the fascination with abstract ideas etc.

But we need a society of some consistency or whatever, to be able to have the leisure and calm to speculate or 'play' about with such things or ideas. Peace helps.

Maybe like Vonnegut in' Slaughter House 5' Borges realized that a "direct attack" on war, ethics and so on, would fail to impress (hence Vonnegut also, in his intro says a direct description of events in Dresden, where he was actually (imprisoned I think) when the bombing took place) would probably fall on deaf ears or blind eyes); so Borges riddling and his philosophizing and satire perhaps often veil deeper or extra themes.

sonja yelich said...

Jack ~ always a pleasure to read your words.

sonja yelich said...

Jack ~ always a pleasure to read your words.

Jack Ross said...

Sonja - long time no hear from!

Of course it raises the question exactly what search terms you put into google to come up with this particular post: "Borges", "labyrinths", maybe? or was it Oscar Wilde & Bosie?

Hope all's well with you.

sonja yelich said...

No silly - I read you regularly - & I like what I read - all's well - am in the Sargeson Flat in Albert Park for 5 months - nothing to do but write/ read - which is bliss. Heaven for an author. best wishes - s.

Richard said...

Sonja - how are you? I remember you reading about 1989-90 at the Albion.
Regards, Richard.