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 ...

Monday, February 08, 2010

In Flanders Fields

[Passchendaele (1917)]

It seems like ages since I last posted anything on this blog. What can I say? Summer intervened.

I feel like I spent most of it moling through stacks of books and typing up long lists of them for my bibliography blog (still, alas, a long way from completion - though sometimes I delude myself that the end might be in sight).

Bronwyn and I did have a nice little break by the banks of Lake Rotorua, though, during which I managed to read the whole of Anthony Beevor's horrifying account of the Battle of Stalingrad. I found it in the shelves of the friend's house we were staying in.

Which brings me to the subject of history books - more specifically books of military history. I seem to have read an awful lot of them lately. First there were the First World War books:

  • Liddell-Hart, Basil H. History of The First World War. 1930. Rev. ed. 1934. London: Pan Books, 1972.
  • Middlebrook, Martin. The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916. 1971. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
  • Middlebrook, Martin. The Kaiser’s Battle. 21 March 1918: The First Day of the German Spring Offensive. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
  • Prior, Robin, & Trevor Wilson. The Somme. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Taylor, A. J. P. The First World War: An Illustrated History. 1963. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.
  • Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. 1962. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1963.
  • Wolff, Ian. In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign. 1958. London: Pan Books, 1961.

Some of them I found in my own shelves, others I borrowed from the library. After that I found myself moving on to the Second World War:

  • Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad. 1998. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.
  • Lord, Walter. The Miracle of Dunkirk. New York : Viking Press, 1982.
  • Shirer, William L. The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940. 1969. London: Pan Books, Ltd., 1972

Now, however, it's back to the Napoleonic wars, and even further back in time - all the way to antiquity:

  • Burrow, John. A History of Histories: Epics, chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century. London: Allen Lane, 2007.
  • Strassler, Robert B., ed. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Trans. Andrea L. Purvis. Introduction by Rosalind Thomas. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.
  • Strassler, Robert B., ed. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Richard Crawley. 1874. Introduction by Victor Davis Hanson. 1996. New York: Free Press, 2008.
  • Zamyoski, Adam. 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.
  • Zamyoski, Adam. Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon & The Congress of Vienna. HarperPress. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

Why? You may well ask. I've always been a bit of a fan of such books, but I hope I'm not just one of those war junkies who spend their time prying into the more gruesome details of ancient battles because it gives them some kind of perverted thrill.

I do remember the sheer shock of seeing the Menin Gate and those immense fields of immaculately tended white crosses on the former Western Front when I went there with my parents as a teenager.

I guess my excuse, then, has to be relevance. The more of these books I read, the more applicable they seem to everyday life - my own, where I get to watch bureaucratic decision-making processes on a daily basis - but everyone else's, too, as we all experience the dreary parochial soap-opera of New Zealand politics.

[The Honourable John Key
Prime Minister of NZ]

It was interesting the other day, in fact, listening to John Key's response to the news that unemployment was far, far higher than anyone had feared, giving the lie to all his optimistic statements around New Year. His comment was that the recession was very bad, the worst since the 1930s, so there was really nothing anyone could do. "It could be worse," he added with a toothy smile.

I guess an outsider might find it a bit odd to find the man in charge of the overall direction of the nation's finances saying, in effect, that there was nothing to be done and it was all in the lap of the gods. But it's not so surprising if you've recently had the experience of reading William Shirer's appalling, terrifying account of the breakdown of France in 1940 - the pusillanimous refusal to take responsibility for anything on the part of the generals; the active, gleeful desire on the part of so many politicians to grovel before a Dictator (preferably a senile one - like Petain - who would allow them to pull the strings); the instinctive preference of the middle classes for Hitler and his Germans over the opposition at home. It made perfect sense to them at the time, but the harvest was a bitter one.

Watching the way decisions actually get made in a big organisation inspired the following poem, in fact. How else it it really possible to understand why people sign up to a solution they know to be unworkable and wrong? It isn't cowardice, exactly - or even complacency. It's just that things tend to develop a momentum of their own, and it's very difficult for novel and creative ideas to be heard, even, in an atmosphere where wiseacre "realism" rules.

Luckily the consequences seldom entail the violent deaths of half a million men. Seeing Key's complacent, vacant face proclaiming his inability to think of anything to do to reduce unemployment in the slightest, though, made me it far easier for me to imagine him or his kind signing up to yet another pointless, bone-headed war. We've seen his sort before. They used to be called Chamberlain or Herbert Hoover (or G. W. Bush and his toady Blair, for that matter):

Last Conference before Passchendaele

(5th-7th January, 1917)

Everyone knew it wouldn’t work, but nobody
could think of a way not to go through
with it. Lloyd George knew
Douglas Haig was self-deluded,
believing every ‘intelligence report’
from crystal-gazing Colonel Charteris
– God (after all) was on his side.
Sir William Robertson (Chief
of the Imperial General Staff) knew
Haig was next door to an imbecile
but backed him – lacking better –
against any alternative. Haig knew
the Fifth Army Staff, Gough’s boys,
were capable of stuffing up
the most elegant and foolproof
plan. Everyone knew
it always rains in Flanders
in the Autumn. The result was
the ‘most indiscriminate slaughter
in the history of warfare.’
No-one could find
a good way to avoid it.

Without losing face, that is.

All in all, it's hard to feel that I've been entirely wasting my time with these books.