Two Selections from Borges

Two selections from Borges on the subject of unknowing.


Argumentum Ornithologicum (The Maker, published with Penguin’s edition of The Aleph; translated by Andrew Hurley)

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted. In this case I saw fewer than ten birds (let us say) and more than one, but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, which was not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That integer–not-nine, not-eight, not-seven, not-six, not-five, etc.–is inconceivable. Ergo, God exists.


From A Defense of Bouvard and Pécuchet (Selected Non-Fictions, translated by Eliot Weinberger)

Flaubert was a devotee of Spencer; in the master’s First Principles we read that the universe is unknowable, for the clear and adequate reason that to explain a fact is to relate it to another more general fact, a process that has no end, or that conducts us to a truth so general that we cannot relate it to any other, that is, explain it. Science is a finite sphere that grows in infinite space; each new expansion makes it include a larger zone of the unknown, but the unknown is inexhaustible. Flaubert writes: “We still know almost nothing and we wish to divine the final word that will never be revealed to us. The frenzy for reaching a conclusion is the most sterile and disastrous of manias.”



The broadcasting of serious psychological neuroses to one’s entire personal network is now so commonplace that, as a topic of discussion, it’s considered boring. We routinely expect one or another of our online colleagues to commit these kinds of indiscretions, and when they happen we largely ignore them. It’s almost as if questions of morality, or of common sense, have been relegated to the realm of taste: never mind the consequences, if “Dave from Barrie” wants to advertise on his public profile that he spent the afternoon sucking fumes from a bong, even if he missed a company retreat to do so, and his boss, a devout Baptist, can see his profile — well, why not let him? There is something to the idea that every one is their own master, but when everything is the same as everything else, what’s the point, and what is there left to be master of?

Looking at the above example, can you think of many things worse, or more awkward, to share with an easily searchable network of your peers? A network that (no matter how “private” your profile) has recently been revealed to have serious compromising security flaws regarding exactly the kind of data that is compromising? What was published above wasn’t meant to be groundbreaking or controversial, else it would be more acceptable; it was barely even coherent. The status wasn’t released into a closed-knit group of friends who would understand the statement in-context and alongside the larger history of the individual: it was released into a network many orders larger, in which ignorant rubes like myself are free to make whatever they want of it.

Why would anyone willingly subjugate themselves to such torture? Certainly we all feel the need for the catharsis of self-expression, but why in a venue so cold and unfeeling, one in which we are not likely to be responded to or even understood? It’s true that in a flood of hundreds or so of these events, the indiscretion itself may go unnoticed: but that doesn’t make it any less, or mean the consequences (the many consequences: personal and professional) are in any way diminished. At least do it intelligently, at least have some purpose! Then you might be able to defend yourself.

A Terrible Ego

What I’ve neglected here — and elsewhere — is a sort of exercise. While flab has collected at the end of brain neurons and the tip of my writing callous has noticeably diminished, instead of writing I am worried about efficiently entering passwords into online programs, and also about the state of B. Tyner, star right fielder for the imagination Philadelphia Phillies. Should I release him and let someone else take over, or should I keep him until he becomes old and his skills, necessarily, degrade?


A bizarre fantasy:

I have always regretted the weight gain that caused my meeting with M. to be so disappointing. I entered the café loping like a bear, with my thighs noticeably touching, even enveloping each other, and my neck-fat a fleshy boulder, quivering like a sack of gelatin, thick as several layers of scarfs.

One could see the disappointment in M.’s face, and I kept talking to avoid the weight, never addressing the subject, not even a little bit, skimming over it like a hydrofoil over water — but what was even worse, I now realise, was her shock, owing to the peculiar kind of dishonesty that surrounded the circumstances of our meeting. The weight had not been warned of, or even mentioned, and so it served as a psychological warning — foreshadowing for far worse, though it was also its own kind of barrier, a very real one.


In the grocery store on Sunday, I noticed a young woman, neurotically thin, navigating the vegetable aisles with a basket of fruit. She had dark brown shoulder-length hair — not greasy, but perhaps not well-kept either — and she wore a plain green, slightly worn, t-shirt with matching shorts and flip-flops that suggested she was doing exactly what she was doing, which was indifferently, even carelessly, shopping for groceries late on a Sunday night.

I noticed this woman, as I said, which is an important detail only because as I passed her aisle I had to double-back because I realised what I was looking for (onions) was in her aisle. I’m sure my jerky and awkward movements as I doubled back, combined with my looking at her earlier, must have conveyed that I had some interest in her…

We found ourselves side-by-side at the onions. I, interested in the large onions, stood by the basket of medium sized ones, while she, interested in the medium onions, stood by the larger ones. A bubble of awareness restricted movement. I didn’t want to act too quickly because I thought that acting too quickly would startle her, or, one way or the other, have unintentional romantic implications. She reached across, in front of me, and touched one of the medium onions. I waited for my chance. She put the onion down, back in the basket. The set-up was so much like a television show or a movie (that contrived scene where the unfamiliar couple lingers, and comes together, over the ripeness of a green pepper) that she must have been aware of its awkwardness… Finally, her hand receded; I reached over and grabbed one larger onion, and then another.

At the same time I pulled back the second onion our hands interrupted each other, and she turned to me and smiled: too wide and too honest, a naked smile, as if it said “Ah! So here is how we finally meet!”, and I realised that my awkwardness earlier had been something else for her. I smiled back, honestly, because I liked her, and, embarrassed, left.

The worst part of the encounter, and also the most endearing, was that I could see the encounter from her perspective, and I knew that if I’d had a similar encounter, at another time in my life, I would have considered it thrilling and sustaining — even if nothing happened more than what I described above — and I could sense that it was the same for her; in her eyes I caught her loneliness, a sad loneliness, but a nice one, and I remembered what it’s like to live alone in the city, and I thought that if the encounter was nice for her, if there was anything sustaining in it, then so much the better… even if for me the encounter couldn’t be anything but awkward.



On Tuesday I stumbled on a band called Bala Clava playing outside the CIUT headquarters on St. George.

Rock is dangerous. Such is the power of the electronic guitar, the lead singer’s voice, the drum beat — that I take it as a sign. Of what? I don’t know. In the up and down of the music, the violence of the mannequin with a ski mask over her head advertising the name of the band, the impromptu nature of the concert on the eve of a thunderstorm, the sign I take is that I should abandon my life and become more reckless. That I should be more potent, live more precariously… but somehow I always think rock means that, no matter where or who I am.

I couldn’t live that way. The allure is in the self-deception, the ability to pull a curtain over your life and say “I am not a man! I am an idea!” It’s much less complicated, and easier, to live as an idea than a man. A man might find himself pulled in many directions, by many ideas, because he is a nest of paradoxical philosophy, desires, and commitments. By contrast an idea is rigid and blind, and it has only one conclusion, which is either temperance or disappointment, or death.

The Dufferin Mall


The two were having a conversation about pulsing nebulas and quasars.

“You see — when they wrote it, well, it was just on such a small scale! For now you have a telescope that you can point at the sky and you see — well, you can see twelve million years in the past, if you like, or even further. It’s so vast and endless, and unfathomable — and hopeful, I think, I think it’s hopeful that it’s so unfathomable — and when they were writing it — when these bearded men sat down and wrote the book, 1800 years ago, well; the world is just so different, now. In comparison, what they wrote seems almost naive.”

“Certainly, certainly. Of course. It’s useless.”

They did not address the human question. I should have addressed it, and I wish I had, because now the details of the encounter are wisps, and if I’d started some kind of debate perhaps they would be more definite. It’s clear that at the time, listening to them, I thought that I would rather write about it, that I could later do so in a way that was, perhaps, more honest than engaging them, which might lead to a confrontation that was far from comfortable. I told myself that I was hesitant because people are so loathe to have their opinions questioned, or to discuss matters openly, and yet the two were young and would probably have welcomed it; it was really me who was loathe to engage them. Not because I was afraid, or that I thought I couldn’t handle myself in the debate; only because I was reluctant to climb out of my hiding place, to reveal to the two men that the sea of people passing around them had ears, and lips, and its own mind.

Now they are mirages formed and dismissed in the heat, and I am left here without them, without a coherent understanding of their thesis and their direction, and imagining them I can only create unsatisfying straw men that don’t rival the two men at all in their messy ambiguity, and I can only feel unsatisfied.


Bleg, bloog, blahg


Somewhere between now and then I’ve become more private. The old self, that is less private, has left and locked himself in a cabinet, or else he is busy navigating the dense streets of old Hong Kong, and only when he’s finished whatever task he set out for himself will he return. Personality comes and goes, in waves. We are all different according to the position of the hands on the clock, and yet the clock is circular, and so at specific times we return to the selves we once were, or still are, and inhabit that body for a while.

I look forward to September, because I am going back to university, and now I feel almost like I am only preparing myself for that moment. It’s as if I have changed into my gym clothes, put talcum powder on my hands, and now only have to push a great concrete block from one side of the room to the other, except that the delivery of the block has been postponed (the truck is turned around on a one-way street somewhere) and I am anxious to start. It’s better not to be too impatient. But I am impatient, without structure; even if to all outward appearances I am more patient than at other times you have known me.

A signifier of my impatience: I’ve neglected personal correspondence, as well as this blog, and yet I seem to have all the time in the world for Twitter, an application that does nothing for me and that I am not even sure the purpose of. What it does is concentrate my life, before narrated in paragraph blocks here, and elsewhere even longer,  into short, unreflective, pithy statements that only serve to depress me. Most of the time I don’t post them; it’s enough that I have thought them and agonised over their uselessness. Where before long blog entries sprang from nowhere and composed themselves in my head, now my ruminations are limited to 140 character glossy nonsense.

It’s not so bad, I guess: I only have to change my habits.