Borges in the Firing Line

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Jorge Luis Borges was interviewed on TV a number of times in later life but most of the available appearances are in un-subtitled Spanish. His 1977 meeting with William F Buckley on Buckley’s long-running debate and discussion show, Firing Line, is an exception, and a welcome one for being almost a whole hour of serious discussion. Buckley’s reputation has been reappraised in recent years. Gore Vidal famously accused him on live TV of being a “crypto-Nazi”, a barb that prompted Buckley to momentarily lose his usual composure. With American politics currently beset by actual Nazis, crypto- or otherwise, as well as people who wouldn’t crack open the spine of a book even if you offered them another tax break, Buckley now looks like an impossible figure: an American conservative who was also a genuine intellectual with a passion for literature.

The discussion on this occasion is less about Borges’ works than about language and literature. If you’ve read any Borges interviews then this is familiar territory, but Borges elaborates here on subjects that were only touched on elsewhere, especially the strengths of English over Spanish as a literary language, and the pros and cons of translation. This latter subject is a sore point for Borges readers such as myself who believe that the current translations (made after Borges’ death) are inferior to the earlier ones, many of which were prepared with the approval of the author. It’s painful to hear him say he thought his stories worked better in English, and it makes me wonder again what he might make of the present state of affairs.

Elsewhere, Buckley tries to lead Borges into a discussion of politics, a subject that he generally avoided because it didn’t interest him, and whenever he did mention the subject he’d usually get into trouble by saying something that would annoy one side of the political spectrum or the other. I was pleased to note a fleeting reference to Arthur Machen, mentioned in relation to the Julio Cortázar short story, Casa Tomada (House Taken Over), which Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo reprinted in their Antología de la Literatura Fantástica (1977).

Previously on { feuilleton }
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

Weekend links 263

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Dancing Horse (1972) by Tadashi Nakayama.

• The Wounded Galaxies Festival of Experimental Media takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, on October 7–11, 2015. The event is an offshoot of the earlier Burroughs Century, and the phrase “wounded galaxies” is one of Burroughs’ own. It’s also the partial title of Wounded Galaxies Tap At The Window, the most recent album by Cyclobe who will be performing at the festival. Cyclobe’s Stephen Thrower will be in London later this month for the launch of his new book, Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco, and a screening of Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971).

• Gallery sites showcasing erotic art are often coy about the details of the work they’re exhibiting. That’s not the case with Artists Space, NYC, whose Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play is running from June 14–August 23, 2015.

• “I just loved the songs, and I didn’t mind the age in their voices, and I didn’t mind the fact that they were unaccompanied, it didn’t matter.” Shirley Collins talking to Ben Graham about her love of English folk music.

The more important question is what do we do with psychedelia now? I think the drugs themselves and the experiences they produce in individuals and for society are too important and vital to be pigeon-holed and taken hold of by a bloodthirsty media that always aims to reduce all experience to a few simple straplines for improved consumerism.

Dr Ben Sessa talking to Barnaby Smith about psychedelic drugs. Breaking Convention 2015, the Third International Conference on Psychedelic Consciousness, takes place at the University of Greenwich next month.

• “…if someone opens a door or if sunlight falls on them they shoot off the grid and suddenly you have a roomful of what sounds like sick bagpipes.” Will Gregory on the physicality of Moog synthesizers.

• Mixes of the week: The Necromancer-Queens of Neverland, an exotic collection by SeraphicManta, Secret Thirteen Mix 156 by Asusu, and an Ornette Coleman playlist.

• “In 2015, the thought of anything as incendiary as Scum or Made in Britain turning up on TV just seems bizarre.” Danny Leigh on the great Alan Clarke.

• More psychedelia: ‘Art That Transcends‘, my article for Communication Arts, has been posted on the magazine’s website.

Phantasmaphile recommends Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of short stories by Silvina Ocampo.

Earth filmed playing live in Brooklyn, NY, September 24, 2014. The full set, and a great performance.

• At Dangerous Minds: “How Far Will You Go?” Meet Smokey, the outrageously gay 70s cult rockers.

Peter Strickland on six films that fed into The Duke of Burgundy.

Things I Found In Records

Christopher Lee sings!

Polly On The Shore (1970) by Shirley & Dolly Collins | The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood (1972) by Sandy Denny | The Banks of Red Roses (1988) by June Tabor

Hinton’s hypercubes

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Illustration from The Fourth Dimension (1906) by Charles Howard Hinton.

A slight return to the worlds of Borges. I happened to be re-reading some of the stories in The Book of Sand (1975), one of the later collections which includes the story Borges dedicated to HP Lovecraft, There are more things. Borges’ writings are nothing if not filled with references to other works of literature, philosophies, religions, and ideas in general; following up the less-familiar references would preoccupy a reader to the detriment of the writing so there’s a tendency when reading a Borges piece to take for granted many of those nuggets of esoteric information. I’ve read There are more things many times—it’s a favourite in part for having the additional thrill of Borges going Lovecraftian—but only realised with this reading that I can now fully appreciate the following:

Years later, he was to lend me Hinton’s treatises which attempt to demonstrate the reality of four-dimensional space by means of complicated exercises with multicoloured cubes. I shall never forget the prisms and pyramids that we erected on the floor of his study.

Prior to reading this I did know that Hinton was Charles Howard Hinton (1853–1907), the British mathematician and dimensional theorist. Hinton’s name tends to turn up in discussions of the work of his mystical contemporaries, notably the Theosophists who were more taken with his theories than those in the scientific fields. (A conviction for bigamy didn’t help his reputation.) But those multicoloured cubes were a mystery until the publication of (fittingly) the fourth number of Strange Attractor Journal. Among the usual selection of fascinating articles the book contains a piece by Mark Blacklock about Hinton’s ideas including those mysterious cubes. Drawings of the cubes first appeared in A New Era of Thought (1888) where Hinton proposes using them as aids to a series of mental exercises with which the reader may visualise the higher dimensions of space. Hinton invented the word “tesseract” to describe the four-dimensional structure projected from the faces of his three-dimensional cubes.

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Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus, 1954) by Salvador Dalí.

Hinton may not have impressed his mathematical colleagues as much as he hoped but his ideas have an understandable attraction, as the Borges story demonstrates. The story concerns the refashioning of a Buenos Aires house for an unusual resident; thirty years earlier Robert Heinlein wrote “—And He Built a Crooked House—” in which an architect builds a house in the form of a four-dimensional hypercube: only the lowest cube attached to the ground is visible from the exterior. I read that story when I was a teenager, and was already acquainted with tesseracts thanks to school-friends who were maths whizzes; I was the arts whizz, and I think I was probably the first of us Dalí enthusiasts to discover the artist’s own take on the hypercube, Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) from 1954. Borges and Heinlein in those stories were both writing their own forms of science fiction, and Dalí’s painting finds itself co-opted into another story with sf connections, The University of Death (1968) by JG Ballard, one of the chapters in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970):

He lit a gold-tipped cigarette, noticing that a photograph of Talbot had been cleverly montaged over a reproduction of Dalí’s ‘Hypercubic Christ’. Even the film festival had been devised as part of the scenario’s calculated psychodrama.

If we seem to have strayed a little then it’s worth noting that Borges was familiar with Ballard’s work: he included The Drowned Giant in the later editions of The Book of Fantasy, the anthology he edited with Adolfo Bioy-Casares and Silvina Ocampo. The two writers also met on at least one occasion.

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JLB and JGB, circa 1970. Photo by Sophie Baker.

Charles Hinton’s coloured cubes and tesseracts are described in detail in The Fourth Dimension (1906), a reworking of the ideas from A New Era of Thought, and also the source of the colour illustration that everyone reproduces. Mark Blacklock has his own multi-dimensional website where you can read about his construction of a set of three-dimensional Hinton cubes. As for the mental exercises, Blacklock’s piece in Strange Attractor contains an anecdotal warning that the auto-hypnotic system required to fully visualise Hinton’s dimensions can result in a degree of obsession dangerous to the balance of mind. Proceed with caution.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance