Photographs of Jorge Luis Borges in Palermo, 1984, by Ferdinando Scianna

I came across this wonderful photo by Fernandino Scianna on twitter:

It turns out that on the Magnum Photo Agency site there is a series of photos of Borges by Scianna. Most (but not all) of these are from a 1984 visit by Borges to Palermo in Sicily (Borges grew up in a Buenos Aires district called Palermo)

Obviously the copyright lies with Scianna and I will advise readers to go to Magnum site to browse, but I couldn’t resist this photo of Borges touching a bust of Julius Caesar:

Palermo: touching a sculpture of Julius Caesar in the Archeological Museum.

Oh and another from a visit to the National Gallery:

Palermo: the National Galery.

 

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From “Quest for God in the Work of Borges”, Annette U. Flynn

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I recently started this book by UCD Lecturer Annette U Flynn. Her biography is worth noting and outlines a winding if not forking path into academia:

 

I grew up in the mountains of the Schwäbische Alb in Southern Germany. After my initial studies at the University of Tübingen, and with the help of the DAAD, I was assigned to Morayshire, on the Northern Scotland coast, to try my hand at teaching pupils at a secondary school. It also led me to adult education in Aberlour, in the Speyside Valley, where I taught Spanish to the workers of the local whisky distilleries. This was the beginning of a long standing love affair with my host country which lasted until 2002, when I came to Ireland to take up my post at UCD.

In Scotland, I worked as a legal translator, and soon started on a new degree course at the University of Edinburgh, joint majoring in Spanish and Italian with Portuguese. This was followed by an MSc (the Scottish equivalent of the Irish MA), and the PhD. I was extremely fortunate to be supervised in my postgraduate studies by Edwin Williamson, who now is at the University of Oxford.

I taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Stirling, and also had the privilege of working for the German publishing House Klett as a lexicographer.

In 2003 I got married and now live in County Wicklow with my husband Dave, who is a painter and writer.

One of my loves is the Argentine tango, which I think is one of the most complete and exciting art forms. It is profound, unpredictable and inexhaustible, very much like Borges.

I look forward to reading and absorbing the whole book which deals with one of my favourite writers from a perspective oft-ignored. As is the way of forking paths, it has introduced me to the philosophy of Hans Vaihinger of “as-if”… and I fear that the footnotes and references of Annette U Flynn’s book may lead me down paths that distract from actually reading it!

Here is an extract:

 

 

The abiding themes of time and identity, which Borges explores, and which he battles with throughout all of his creative life, are an expression of his desire to find a release from these problematic concepts. The quest for the divine in his stories, the unfulfilled spiritual quest of his characters, is not accidental. It is also a metaphor which points to a need to heal a fragile sense of personal self. This is evidenced in one of his very early essays of 1923, ‘La nadería de la personalidad’, where he recounts a personal experience of parting from a friend for good. Borges is prompted, he tells us, by a deep, emotional desire to reveal his soul, his innermost self, to his friend. But this gives way to a vehement, intellectual denial of that very essence of the self. This violent shift from yearning to intellectual denial points to a sense of self which is, in its essence, wounded. This oscillation between affirmation and denial is to be played out again and again. His captivating and intellectually stimulating texts also reveal a lesser known aspect: his struggle to attain a faith reality as expressed in the anguished search for spiritual plenitude. His texts and his characters do speak, openly in some cases, obliquely in others, of a search, a yearning, if not always explicitly for faith itself or God, then for a spiritual experience of some kind or another. The consequences of this difficult search are the emergence of a fragile sense of self, fragmented and caught in a stricture between affirmation and denial. Borges’ fragile sense of self has implications for his notion of time, and vice versa. Both are linked to his spiritual searching.”

Happy #WorldLabyrinthDay 2018

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Happy World Labyrinth Day! :

Celebrate the 10th Annual World Labyrinth Day on May 5, 2018 and join over 5,000 people taking steps for peace, ‘Walking as One at 1’ in the afternoon. Last year gatherings were held in over 20 countries and 45 US states!

For those new to labyrinths, find one to walk in your area using the World Wide Labyrinth Locator. You can also learn to draw or build a simple labyrinth with links in our resources section below. Already planning your event? Be counted and fill out our survey with the WLD Google Form.

Members of the Labyrinth Society are encouraged to facilitate group walks at public labyrinths to engage the community and amplify our collective energy. World Labyrinth Day is also a great opportunity to introduce others to the path by organizing lectures, workshops, tours, book readings, art exhibitions, or building temporary or permanent labyrinths.

If you are unable to ‘Walk as One at 1’ other opportunities to participate include tracing a finger labyrinth on paper or using a mobile app. Labyrinth walks and events can also be held in the morning or evening, as others will be walking in unison with you in other time zones. Just as there are a wide variety of uses of the labyrinth, creativity and multiplicity are encouraged.

Today I am one of those unable to Walk as One at 1 due to work commitments, but I am aiming to mark the event in some way around that time…. and here are some of my labyrinth related posts from this blog:

A Labyrinth on the Rock of Cashel

Castletownroche, Co. Cork – labyrinths, dinosaurs, and spies.

The Labyrinth of Mr Price

The snowy mini-labyrinth of Mr Price

Glencomeragh in February

World Labyrinth Day 2017 – May 6th, 1 pm

“it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane -after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams”

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“Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation” – GK Chesterton, Allan Massie and complexity

. As I have recently written, I am reading a collection of Allan Massie’s Life and Letters columns from the Spectator, which is full of shrewd judgments. In particular there is this on G K Chesterton:

What is disconcerting for many about Chesterton is that, while deadly serious, he revelled in paradoxes, absurdity and farce. He believed in the Devil, believed in him as perhaps few in the last centuries did, but the weapon he employed against him was laughter; he was at one with Rabelais : ‘the discovery of the reality of evil and the battle against it are at the basis of all gaiety and even of all farce’.

Chesterton would have found Orwell admirable — and ridiculous; ridiculous because of his solemnity. ‘The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums’, he declared. He thought in paradoxes, on the sensible ground that if an idea is worth anything it ought to be able to be held upside down and shaken about.

Sometimes, admittedly, the paradoxes flew too easily, too frequently and tiresomely from his pen. He wrote too much and often, I suspect, when he was tired, and then the paradoxes had a mechanical or tinkling sound like music from an elderly barrel-organ. But at his best they make you think, and this is always disturbing: ‘Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’

That’s a thought you get your mind round. Because he was a man of faith he understood and valued doubt. He thought Charles II’s deathbed admission to the Roman Church proof of his perfect scepticism. The wafer might, or might not be, the body of Christ, but then it might, or might not be, a wafer. More than 70 years after his death he remains an entertaining writer, and a disquieting one. In the opinion of the editor of L’Atelier du Roman, Lakis Proguidis, ‘no twentieth-century author has so thoroughly examined the yawning gulf cut in each soul by the ideology of Progress’.

I know what Massie means about “too easily, too frequently and tiresomely” – at times in the polemical and apologetic works there is a sense of dead horses being flogged. At his best, however, there is a freshness to Chesterton’s prose, especially his fiction. Borges adored Chesterton, indeed placed him with Stevenson (and on one occasion Homer) in a personal pantheon.

Anyhow all this is prelude to a passage from The Everlasting Man which struck me as forcibly summarising the thoughts of Joseph Tainter on complexity:

It is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy. To this day the comparatively simple agricultural communities are by far the purest democracies. Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation. Anyone who likes may state it by saying that democracy is the foe of civilisation. But he must remember that some of us really prefer democracy to civilisation, in the sense of preferring democracy to complexity.

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.

From The Theologians, Jorge Luis Borges

The opening lines of The Theologians:

After having razed the garden and profaned the chalices and altars, the Huns entered the monastery library on horseback and trampled the incomprehensible books and vituperated and burned them, perhaps fearful that the letters concealed blasphemies against their god, which was an iron scimitar. Palimpsests and codices were consumed, but in the heart of the fire, amid the ashes, there remained almost intact the twelfth book of the Civitas Dei, which relates how in Athens Plato taught that, at the centuries’ end, all things will recover their previous state and he in Athens, before the same audience, will teach this same doctrine anew. The text pardoned by the flames enjoyed special veneration and those who read and reread it in that remote province came to forget that the author had only stated this doctrine in order better to refute it.

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

Original here. Despite my enthusiasm here – and what I wrote in the penultimate paragraph – I didn’t read any of the succeeding books in this series. I was never, even at my adolescent height of enthusiasm for SF/fantasy, all that into the multivolume series which dominate the field.

The World House
Guy Adams
Angry Robot, 2010

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Done properly, the story within a story can have a vertiginous effect, a sense of being caught in an infinite loop, best described by Jorge Luis Borges in his lecture on “The Thousand And One Nights” collected in the book Seven Nights. The world-within-a-world story can have a similar effect. In a way, the hidden world is a theme not only of literature — from Horton Hears A Who to, it could be argued, the three stages of the afterlife in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Dante enters the afterworld through “a dark wood”) — but of myth of the underworld may be the first world-within-a-world story.

Guy Adams has created a rollercoaster of a story set in a world within a box — a world-within-a-world that is itself a Divine Comedy. For the box is, for most of those inside, a kind of after-life — those humans who enter the box do so at a moment of imminent death in this world — and it is certainly more an Inferno, or at best a Purgatorio, than a Paradiso. This is a world created out of the nightmares and fears of humans themselves, contained inside a box that is in fact a prison, with a very special prisoner.

The first third or so of the book is taken up by gradually introducing the multifarious cast of characters. From Spain during the Civil War to Harlem in the early 30s to the late night bars of New York in the 70s to Florida and an unnamed corner of England today, the pre-box lives of the characters are sketched artfully and speedily.

We begin with Miles, an English antique shop owner with poor financial judgement and a gambling habit, who gets on the wrong side of some very nasty characters indeed, and just before they blow him away on account of an unpaid debt he vanishes into the box. We also meet Penelope Simmons, a fun-loving Boston socialite in the 30s, who, about to be raped and murdered by her psychopathic fiancé Chester and his chauffeur at the end of a night out in Harlem, also disappears into the box. Both turn up at the same time and in the same area of the rambling, seemingly infinite house, which is where most of the action in the world takes place. If there is a main protagonist to the book, it is Miles, whose mordant world-view and lack of appetite for heroics, and lustful longing for Penelope (in fairness to Miles, at their first encounter Penelope is totally naked having escaped from Chester’s clutches just in time) are an earthy anchor point as the surreal action ensues. Miles and Penelope luckily team up with Carruthers, an Edwardian big game hunter and general man of action along the lines of Lord John Roxton from The Lost World who is determined, with admirable pluck, to escape the box altogether.

Interspersed with the stories of the box’s human inhabitants are brief vignettes of the story of some kind of super-powerful entities, probably extraterrestrial, who are responsible for the box’s existence. The box is a kind of prison for a renegade entity, one who stayed behind to enjoy tormenting the puny, pitiful humans whom its fellows had just been bored by.

In the early stages, it seems at times that Adams is throwing in yet another character from yet another setting, seemingly at random. As the story progresses, we realise that there are connections and commonalities there. And there seems to be another kind of inhabitant of the box — who seems able to exit and re-enter both the box and our own timeline. Alan Arthur, an academic in modern Florida with a large chunk of his memory missing, is drawn to this box (which, unsurprisingly for an artefact of such power and mystery, has been the subject of confused and fragmentary articles in some of the more out-of-the-mainstream media) for reasons that become clearer as the story progresses.

Too much more would give away not only the plot but the pleasure of reading the unfolding of this intricate tale. The world of the box is one of subtly altered reality, where benign seeming surfaces mask mortal dangers. From a jungle to snow-capped mountains to a sea of literal dreams, there are all the unnatural environments that one could think of. This may be a kind of after-life, but the box is a highly lethal place. Most of the visitors have a short life expectancy, and many resort to a brutish subhuman existence of cannibalism and fear.

Some of the most endearing characters are, unfortunately, not with us for long — although the conclusion does raise the possibility that the arrows of causality may have to be tinkered with, if not actually reversed. There will be a sequel, Restoration, which I for one will certainly be reading to see where the ride will go next.

World-within-a-world stories, like stories-within-stories, can be horribly self-indulgent and dull. After a while, the reader can lose interest in a story in which anything can happen with no real consequences, or in which random settings can be created. The crucial trick which Adams pulls off is to create compelling characters whose destiny becomes a matter of all-consuming interest in the reader. Adams is also adept at keeping the various strands of his highly productive imagination together, and creating a real sense of nightmare and indeed of menace in the story.

St Jerome in His Study, Albrecht Dürer

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I first came across this engraving in an exhibition of Dürer engravings in the Chester Beatty Library over a decade ago.  In my completely uninformed way, what struck me most was the pleasingly cheerful sleeping lion, a contrast with the more famous apocalyptic engravings by the same artist of Melancholia, The Knight Death and The Devil,  and of course The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

While it is a little dispiriting to see Dürer reduced to listicle format, the Mental Floss article linked to above is actually pretty informative:

 

There’s no evidence to suggest Dürer saw Saint Jerome in His Study, Melancholia I, and Knight, Death, and the Devil as companion pieces, but modern art experts group the works because of their technical similarities. Each was created from copper printing plates between 1513 and 1514. They are similar in size and use of contrast, and as you’d expect of pieces called Meisterstiche (or Master Engravings), each is densely detailed with an expert care.

There is also a link with one of my recurrent blogging subjects:

12. JORGE LUIS BORGES PENNED TWO POEMS ABOUT THIS PIECE.
Named “Ritter, Tod, und Teufel” (I) and “Ritter, Tod und Teufel” (II), the first shows the Argentine author’s admiration for the knight’s bravery in the face of death and damnation, while the second reveals he can see himself in that very position.

 

I have never explored Borges’ poetry nearly as much as his prose. This page features  English versions of these poems.

Anyway, back to St Jerome after this knight’s move. Usually the saint is shown in the more dramatic setting of the desert. As you can read in this piece:

If you spend any time in the great art museums of Europe you will see with surprising frequency a more or less stylized portrait of an emaciated monk in a wilderness den, often pummeling his body with a stone …

In nearly all the portraits, Jerome is depicted as a tormented ascetic, praying, with his four hallmarks somewhere on the canvas: a crucifix, a skull (symbolizing meditation on mortality), a recumbent lion (which Jerome reputedly befriended by extracting a thorn from its paw and which may symbolize the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11), and a red cardinal’s hat (symbolizing Jerome’s status, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, as one of the four great doctors of the Latin church).

There is however a rich tradition of paintings of him in his study.  The Christianity Today article linked to above acts as a good introduction to who St Jerome was and why, in the author’s view, he is especially relevant today (see my major caveat after the end of this passage):

The church’s debt to this brilliant, prolific, and influential scholar-monk is immense. Jerome was a thunderbolt, however, and conflict was a hallmark of his career. Indeed, he may have been one of those individuals who needed conflict in order to reach his zenith of his abilities.

What did the Renaissance find so appealing in Jerome? It was the conflict itself of a man who loved both the Christian faith and the pagan classics. Jerome had a terrifying dream of standing before Jesus Christ on judgment day and being rejected from salvation because of his love for the classics, and especially Cicero. Jerome’s intermittent and not entirely successful pursuit of the ascetic lifestyle was an attempt to purge the influence of paganism from his life. In its attempt to synthesize humanism and Christianity, the Renaissance found a mirror image in Jerome. The conflict of Christian versus classical, Trinitarian monotheism versus pagan polytheism that contended for the soul of Jerome also contended for the soul of Europe in the Renaissance.

There have been times when the Western church seemingly came close to resolving the conflict between the pagan and Christian. Dante’s synthesis of the classical and Christian worlds in The Divine Comedy was one instance, and the post-Reformation world of Protestant “state” churches was another.

The fitful romance between classical and Christian has never led to formal marriage, however, at least in the Latin West. The soul of the West continues to be nourished by the pagan and Christian, the Renaissance and (Counter) Reformation, but they stand in tension with one another. Go to Paris: in the Louvre you’ll feel the sensual attraction of paganism; in Notre Dame you’ll sense the spiritual attraction of Christianity.

In America the tension is present in other ways. The pagan current manifests itself in the ubiquitous temptation to put our ultimate trust in human idolatries such as advanced missile systems, the hegemony of athletics, or the lure of science as the arbiter of the only truth that matters. But a Christian and salvific current is present as well, as manifested in the ongoing debates over the meaning of the gospel for issues such as abortion, infanticide, torture, homosexuality, divorce, and utilitarian and militaristic ends of human life.

As long as we live in a fallen world a complete synthesis of gospel and culture will not be possible. Indeed, whenever it is attempted, the gospel is inevitably compromised. My own life repeatedly bears witness to the tension between the two worlds. Perhaps yours does too.

Ponder again the urbane scholar-monk in his wilderness den. A skull – our impending mortality; a docile lion – the majesty of the powerful and untamed in nature; the cardinal’s hat – a reminder of the ministry of the church in the world for good; and above all, the crucifix – the symbol of the redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Jerome seems to be a necessary, if uncomfortable, icon for our own day.

While I don’t fully buy the idea that the gospel and culture (as opposed to, let’s say, worldliness, are in inherent tension – and one can feel a sensuality to the art of Notre Dame and a spirituality to the art of the Louvre), this is an interesting essay. Perhaps this engraving, while not as dramatic as the Desert Jerome, is in its way as counter cultural as Edwards suggests the more famous image is. Sitting in a study – with or without a sleeping lion – is its own form of contrariness in a distracted age.