The Waiting Room (Sonnet on Stress #2)

But if a day of rest, though washed in sun
and of repose and worship sweet with draughts,
folds into dread while yet the goldfinch laughs,
the dread of anxious waking, Sunday done;
then what has hope to say in its defense
which hurried this while last week yet was green?
Then rest is youthful dread that dead hopes wean;
or else hope is the enemy of sense.
I better know the stifling weekday womb,
which as it hastens growth more balks at birth,
than any other waiting room on earth,
till I shall learn to loiter in a tomb.
What breathes in thrashing surfs of day on day,
if not this scowling midwife of decay?


An Arbiter (Sonnet on Stress #1)

(About a year ago I was going to do a series of sonnets about stress.  Only two emerged.  Here’s the first.)

An arbiter we crave to set the terms
in which we drink of joy and in which mourn.
The sage is growing jaundiced, who affirms
the humors’ spikes as beauties that adorn
the robe of liberty, the bower of love.
It was a specious proverb that could say,
There is no bliss before us or above
but what each heart can feel in each heart’s way.
I do not know! In truth I do not know!
All things are but themselves and I must change!
The universe bound up in joy and woe,
and must I navigate that endless range?
The veins fill up to burst amid the quest,
with poisons and with nectars they must test.

“Intro to Reading”

I am really impressed with C.S. Lewis’s little book, An Experiment in Criticism.  I can’t imagine how I passed through a Christian college’s department of “Literature” without ever hearing it mentioned.

The book has, first of all, rendered me very sheepish about my own claims to being a literary person.  Lewis applies to books his usual doctrine of unpretentious joy and exposes those who read for the purpose of “egoistic castle-building.”  The real literary person surrenders to the power of a book and relishes being swept up into its world.  Earnest self-discipline is a good reason to read good literature, and perhaps it will evolve into this joyous zeal and surrender, but those who read in order to win medals of intellectualism and cultivation are missing the point entirely–they have “received their reward in full.”

Second of all, Lewis’s Experiment has changed my stance on the weird world of criticism.  I already suspected that critics were overworking literature by trying to strain out its “worldview” or (on the other hand) inspecting it for signs of pure “genius.”  Stories and poems are to enjoy, and what they teach us they teach by pleasure, as Johnson says.  But Lewis suggests a specific benefit of such works: they enlarge our minds by allowing us to experience a perspective other than our own.  A philosophic work explains a viewpoint to me and tries to persuade me to incorporate it into my opinions–a literary work does not explain or persuade but shows me what it is like to see the world a certain way.  Lewis says Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and Dante’s Divine Comedy aren’t effective at explaining or defending Epicureanism or Thomism, but they are effective at showing me what it is like to be an Epicurean or a Thomist.   Experiencing someone else’s viewpoint like this, according to Lewis, expands the world I live in.  It broadens my scope for experiencing events and interactions.

This explanation helps me with the sometimes infuriating question of why stories and poems are even worth deep consideration.  If we use them the way we use philosophic or practical books, the result feels doubly incomplete–because we usually can’t piece together a complete logical system from them, and because even a complete logical system would fall short of grasping the significance of the story or poem itself (think Cliff Notes).  But Lewis helps to show how reading literature is a different task from reading books meant to supply us with knowledge.  It requires a different kind of discipline.

This brings me to what I wanted to write about, which is the third impact Lewis’s Experiment has had on me.  Considering it as an educator, it has given me ideas about how “Literature” should be taught when we reform education.  The old education teaches “Literature.”  All it seems to know, however, is that books are good for some reason.  It puts up banners in elementary schools that say “Reading is Cool,” it aims for universal child literacy and produces an eternal stream of new books that bend over backward to get children to read instead of watching television.  The old education supposes that it is better to read awful books than to read nothing at all, so its books imitate cartoons and video games with all their might, hoping to beat by joining.

Then, when students are older and in need of social and moral education, they are given books that mix poor writing with mature social and moral “themes.”  The average high school student knows the study of “Literature” as a boiling down of a text into “themes” followed by the exercise of considering how they themselves feel personally about those “themes.”  This story is about sexual violence.  How do I feel about sexual violence?  This poem is about racism.  How do I feel about racism?  (It could be that the United States’ poor ability to address realities about race springs in part from decades of literary and historical education that forced students repeatedly to consider race as a “theme” subject to their own and their classmates’ personal feelings.)  The books (and especially the poems) are handpicked for how painlessly they deliver the “themes” that need to be covered.  Consequently, the exercise of humbly entering into a text and experiencing its power is usually not learned.

Then these students enter the university world, where “Literature” is supposed to be taught as a serious discipline.  They jump from easy reading and “themes” into a lightning-fast survey of 500 years of British literature taught by a professional academic.  If they are English majors, they go on from there to something as opaque and esoteric as critical theory, which really requires a strong basis in continental philosophy in order to be understood.  Lit surveys, even good ones, do not help.  Then, very swiftly, the student is expected to specialize in a certain author or genre or period and to familiarize himself or herself with the “current academic consensus” on his or her chosen specialty in order to prepare for graduate writing.  There are many critiques swirling around of specialization and the academic consensus, but those seem the smallest problems to me.  Ideally it would be very nice for professional academics to focus on different areas and compensate for one another’s weak spots in mature academic dialogue, but it is a point beyond dispute that an American English major in his third year has lightyears to go before he is ready to become a specialist.  The real problem is that (almost without exaggeration) the majority of college students do not know how to read.  They know how to read words, no doubt, but many reach their limit at a certain caliber of sentence.  Much less can they read a good story or poem well.  How can they be expected to?  They were taught words when they were young and then given bad books for a decade and a half.

The universities retain high expectations despite the bad preparation the rest of the education system affords, and “Literature” as a field of study suffers devaluation and derision.  English?  You can’t get a job with a degree in that!  The study of good books actually ceases to be even coherent to the majority of people because good books are largely absent from their thoughts and lives.  I don’t merely mean the “great books,” either.  I mean Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth and Winnie the Pooh.  I mean Ender’s Game and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I mean the poetry of Shel Silverstein and George MacDonald.  When C.S. Lewis was writing, unsophisticated children and adults read unsophisticated books.  Now we are somewhat impressed with an adult who reads John Grisham or James Patterson or Danielle Steele or even self-help books for enjoyment.  She is “a reader.”  We are proud of a child who reads Star Wars fan-fiction instead of only watching the Star Wars films.  He is “our little bookworm.”  An adult who reads The Count of Monte Cristo, however, is probably trying to get some “culture.”  An adult who reads Homer is presumably reading it for a college class.  As for a child reading Homer… maybe the book has pictures in it?  There is a certain level of reading for which most people simply have no framework.

The new education, therefore, needs to take a different tack with books.  It needs to quit pretending to teach “Literature” at lower grade levels in imitation of the universities.  Schools divide books into “reading levels,” which are really a least common denominator system based solely on the difficulty of grammar and vocabulary.  While this is important, books are more than grammar and vocabulary. Once some mastery has been established of basic words and sentence structure, students of reading need to begin to work with greater structural complexity at the scale of paragraph, stanza, narrative, argument, etc.  We cannot hit a certain level of technical reading education and then cut it off to focus solely on content and ideas.  Even the best schools are making mistakes in this regard.  Classical schools trying to bring the “great books” down into junior high and high school are having a painful time of it.  The reason: too difficult books introduced too abruptly.  While an 8th grader may have the vocabulary and grammatical skills for Rousseau’s Social Contract, and while he may indeed have the intellect to talk about some of the political issues addressed there, the problem is that the book is at a higher level of reading than he has been trained for.  I do not say he is too young to read the book; increasing the challenge for younger students is possible and beneficial.  But in order to achieve it, the increase needs to be gradual.

Instead of jumping from elementary language arts courses to junior high “Literature,” I would therefore propose a course, stretching from 6th to 12th grade, called “Intro to Reading.”  The title is a hyperbole, of course, but I think it a fairly apt rhetorical device to imply to students that by the time they’ve spent 13 years in school they will only just have made the acquaintance of books.  The course’s focus would be the method of good reading, and the material would be picked, not first for its life-relevant content or its influence on Western Culture, but for its relative ease in rewarding observant reading.

The complexity, the depth, and to some extent the length of the readings would increase from year to year.  A 6th grade student might be introduced to myths and then read the same myth as told by several different authors to compare the effect.  An 8th grader might read detective stories and piece together how they were composed and what interest they might hold other than the suspense of “whodunit.”  High school students might study the epic tradition, or try to understand the union of the widely divergent texts of the Bible.  Instead of assigning massive excerpts at a time in order to cram in more content, teachers would need to require slow and repeated examination of more compact selections.  Schools need to give up on the impossible task of acquainting students with entire eras of literature.  It will need to be left to history teachers to tell what was done and written at certain epochs.  The “Intro to Reading” curriculum cannot hope to fit it all in.  After all, it is far more important that a graduate be a good reader than that he be well read.  So reading assignments must decrease in volume and instead be accompanied with rigorous exercises in hermeneutical observance.  The goal of this training in observance would not be strictly technical, as if we were running a school for editors.  The goal would actually be to pique interest.  C.S. Lewis says that we must “surrender” to a book, give ourselves over to its power, before we can understand and judge it.  So if a funny poem by Lewis Carroll were the subject, the point would be to lead students to the perspective that makes them laugh at it.  “What makes this poem funny?” is too technical.  Why force students to lie about the humor of a poem they never laughed at?  The exercises must encourage surrender to the text, which–especially at first–is an active, not a passive, affair.

Successful training in reading develops taste.  It painstakingly persuades a student to open drowsy, lazy eyes long enough to see a kind of sunrise.  The pains we take are worth only as much as how good we think it is for everyone to see that sunrise.  If we do not think that good taste is a good goal, we should stop teaching literature immediately.  That is, we should restrict assigned reading to informative textbooks and clear modern summaries of the opinions of great thinkers.  Even philosophy need not be read from primary sources until college when specialization and research become important.  As for novels and poems, why force them on anyone?  Whatever ideas they convey can be very well discussed in the abstract.  And whoever is predisposed toward that kind of reading material can go after it in his spare time anyhow.

In fact, any school, whether it teaches literature or not, should expect students to do the bulk of their reading in their spare time.  That is another reason why my imaginary course is called an “Intro.”  The goal is to require a little bit of reading so that the student will do a lot more reading at home.  We help a student to read a good story the right way the first time, hoping that she will be unable to resist reading it again with a flashlight under the covers.

This is what it means to choose texts that reward good reading.  A lesser book might be fun for non-literary reasons.  It might be very suspenseful or full of action or sentimental.  Fine.  But it offers up its reward without requiring observance or surrender.  A book that is too hard for the student certainly makes demands, but if it overworks the students and they miss the reward, they are more put off from good books than they were before.  Thus the task of creating the curriculum requires great discernment, and I imagine that the best strategy would be to start with many short excerpts rather than entire books.  My classical school friends might be aghast at the suggestion.  But remember, we are dealing with a comparatively illiterate age, including ourselves.  It is no good hoping to load an entire Western Canon into the mind of every teenager.  It won’t work.  What might work is to revive the skill of good reading and hope that it spreads.

The Fall Together

Sin belongs to groups, also to humanity as an entire group.  Here is a sketch of how that might work.

The seed of my idea comes from Paradise Lost, book 9.  Eve, alone and vulnerable in the Garden, is beguiled by Satan into eating forbidden fruit.  When she comes to her husband and asks him to do the same, Adam responds first in thought, revealing his own inevitable succumbing:

O fairest of Creation, last and best
Of all God’s works, Creature in whom excelled
Whatever can to sight or thought be formed,
Holy, divine, good, amiable, or sweet! 
How art thou lost! how on a sudden lost,
Defaced, deflowered, and now to death devote! 
Rather, how hast thou yielded to transgress
The strict forbiddance, how to violate
The sacred fruit forbidden!  Some cursed fraud
Of enemy hath beguiled thee, yet unknown,
And me with thee hath ruined; for with thee
Certain my resolution is to die: 
How can I live without thee! how forego
Thy sweet converse, and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn! 
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart:  no, no!  I feel
The link of Nature draw me:  flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe. 

No Satanic temptation moves Adam–he suspects instantly “some cursed fraud of enemy.”  But neither is Adam tied by the joys of Paradise or devotion to God.  Instead he is drawn by “the link of Nature” to follow his wife, even into misery and death.  Thus his answer aloud to Eve:

           …I with thee have fixed my lot,
Certain to undergo like doom:  If death
Consort with thee, death is to me as life;
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of Nature draw me to my own;
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our state cannot be severed; we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself. 

It is Eve who draws Adam to destruction.

[There is no misogyny in this, for Adam is not excused by Milton for giving into “the bond of Nature” which draws him to his own.  What about the bond to God in whose image he is made?  Adam is God’s just as Eve is Adam’s, and both prove traitors.  Had Adam but known that by righteousness Eve could have been saved!  Jesus in Paradise Regained comes under temptation as well, and by resisting He redeems His lost people and undoes Adam and Eve’s failures.  Adam by his choice fails to be redeemer to Eve, and instead joins her in perdition, which also breaks their designed harmony.]

This state of affairs speaks to the way in which sin enters human life and how it spreads.  I think that if Eve had not been created, Adam could never have sinned.  Again, I am not talking about women in particular.  If Eve had been made without an Adam, she too would have been impervious to sin.  It all comes down to how desires are manipulated.  Human beings alone among creatures have a very dim understanding of how to live on earth, and therefore our desires are subject above all to words and personal influence.  Animals are governed by instinct, or by the brute strength of others.  Certainly humans have instinct and a hierarchy based on strength, but more deeply we are able to be led, taught, manipulated, deluded by other persons.  Our trust or mistrust, love or hatred of those around us is the academy in which we learn to decide.  Take for instance the ridiculous importance of parenting to the proper development of human children.  Parents are not mere physical protectors for weak children, but catalysts for necessary emotional reactions in children as they grow.  The absence or neglectfulness of parents often opens young people up to instability, obsession, imbalance, suicide.  What parents say to us or think of us in our youth has an ineffable power over how we live when we get older.  Love interests have a similar power.  So do the words of charismatic businesspeople, politicians, philosophers, artists, preachers…

A man in the Garden of Eden with only God and animals has no scope for disobedience.  The God who made Him and gives Him all things speaks to Him in words of blessing and of command.  There is no other personal influence.  He may gain knowledge on his own by exploring the garden or thinking abstractly about his condition, but without any chatter disrupting the clear signal from God, Adam’s understanding cannot be colored with doubt or discontent.  Even the devil cannot disrupt Adam’s state of happy trust.  This is key, because it also means that Eve’s temptation by the serpent would not have ended in her fall if she had been only one, rather than one of two.  Satan actually has no personal influence of his own.  He speaks through an animal’s mouth; there is no basis for trust in him.  The human being who knows God as Adam did will laugh at the serpent’s assaults and get on with his gardening.  God gives all things, including life.  Why even consider ideas that run contrary to his Word?

The situation changes, though, when another person enters.  Persons weigh down our choices.  They draw us from one good to another like magnets.  The peril of “male and female” is that Adam is introduced to another trustworthy, loveworthy, person.  “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”  Unlike the serpent, the woman is alike to him, able to reason and relate and suggest and react–just as God is.  The result?  A test of free will.  There is now a good apart from God, something to weigh against His commands.  This works the same for Eve, except that she never lived without Adam’s influence, as he did without hers.  What was Eve thinking when she listened to the serpent?  She was thinking of her husband, wondering whether he would side with the serpent or with God.  Doubtless Adam had never contradicted God’s Word, but the very existence and personality of her husband made it hard for her to be sure.  Perhaps the words of temptation resonated with something Adam had said once.  Adam would have spoken to her about God’s command before, giving her a framework for the act of interpretation, hearing words and using thought to apply them to practice.  She was now interpreting for herself, holding the words of God in memory, trying to apply them to obedience, as well as to what seemed best in light of her relation to Adam.  When we know only God, our interpretation of His words is clear–obedience is the only “bond of Nature,” since our nature is akin to God’s.  But when our nature is also drawn to another, we have to work out and harmonize the separate influences in our minds.  The draw of Adam helped Eve to sin, and certainly her draw made him fall with her (as Milton relates).  Relationship among human persons was Satan’s occasion to “mix wickedness into human nature” (cf. Gregory of Nyssa The Great Catechism).

Indeed, the more people who influence us, the more we are tempted to wickedness, since we seek the goods we seek mostly based on such influence.  The draw of people, frankly, draws us away from God.  Of course, in order for disobedience to result, a wicked influence must impose.  There had to be suggestion from the serpent–otherwise the Garden and the first marriage were too happy to forsake.  But after that first imposition, wickedness mixes like yeast into the influence-network of humankind.  It was a confused version of love that made Adam and Eve fall together, but as early as the next generation, murderous hatred appeared.  Cain was drawn to Abel in envy and rage (becoming a kind of human devil), committing a converse sin to that of his parents.  So sin stays with human nature, not only because of each individual heart, but because of the lines drawn from one heart to another.  We arouse confusion and disobedience in one another simply by existing and acting and speaking.  My humanity, spoiled by bad influence, in turn spoils the humanity of my neighbor.

Yet, “it was not good for man to be alone.”  It is no new doctrine that bad company corrupts good character.  Orders of hermitage and orders of celibacy were set up to combat the social power of sin.  The ideal of being shut up in the Garden, alone with God, has persisted through history.  Yet, “it was not good for man to be alone.”  The decree of God that placed a tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden also placed another temptation–a human relationship.  Both tree and woman, however, were too good not to create.  God was too loving to leave Adam alone, even knowing that man would leave his Father in heaven and cleave to his wife.

What, then?  Human community is a great and necessary good.  It is also a conduit of evil.  Often, isolation seems to help with holiness.  Distance from others cools the fiery drama of living–reduces fear, jealousy, envy, anger, discontent, greed, lust…  In every society, among both the religious and the irreligious, there are those who withdraw from mankind for the purpose of purity.  Yet it is part of God’s decree that humans shall be together in marriages, families, nations, churches, etc.  We must come to grips with our social nature before God.  I do not know how.  Maybe the life of Jesus redeems human influence and sociality because of His perfect love.  In that case, thinking in the vein of John’s epistles, the renewal of human personal influence by God Himself allows for the genesis of a human community of interpersonal love that is also reconciled to the personal influence of God.  In the church, humans can be united both to God and to one another by uniting themselves to the sinless human-God Jesus.  “We love because He first loved us.”

Still, we cannot too heavily idealize this community.  Like all human influence, the interactions of church people carry the potential for great harm.  History tells us this.  Church community goes wrong, not just because it is made up of individual “sinful people,” but actually because it is a community knit tightly together.  Every such community is full of heartbreak and disappointment; its members are each other’s stumbling blocks.  St. John’s exhortation to “love one another” is so repetitive in his letters because it never expires.  The church is the paragon of loving human interaction insofar as it is connected to Jesus, but it also must constantly be reminded to act the part.  The church grows into its identity in this sense.

There is more to be said.  The question of sin in the isolated person has to be addressed further.  There are more Milton connections; there are particularly interesting questions to ask about the implications for marriage and celibacy; there are links to the “Social Trinity” conversation, to free will, to alternative interpretations of the original sin narrative, etc.  Or this could all be fallacious. We’ll see.


Note on Boswell…

Boswell actually says, by my reading, that Johnson’s Rasselas will fail to convert anyone who does not already believe in fallen nature and the Christian afterlife, whereas it will proffer wisdom and enjoyment to those who do.  This seems to me a qualified praise of the book, since presumably one might produce a work so compelling that it could change the mind of a dissenter.  Or maybe this hypothetical work simply serves a different purpose, and Rasselas is intentionally a kind of sermon to the faithful, unconcerned with apologetics.

It could also be that Boswell’s comment is aimed at human nature rather than Johnson’s book.  Those who disagree with the assumptions of the book will likely be hardened against its message and will go on dreaming as they did, whereas Johnson will convert again those who are already convinced.

Borges, Frost, Potentiality, Things

I remember having a conversation about whether Borges has anything unique to offer as a writer, or whether, being a bibliophile and a frequent interpreter of well-used thoughts and categories, he should be enjoyed for his style and erudition but counted as a minor contributor.  I said at the time that he was a key contributor mostly as a critic, like Johnson, even when he was doing fiction.  At the time I hadn’t read any Borges in a while, though, and having read him today I imagined a better answer to the question–one that appreciates Borges more accurately.

Borges, more than most writers, makes his interests obvious by cooking them confidently into everything he writes like distinct spices.  Senor Borges, didn’t your last story taste like labyrinth?  Didn’t we have doppelgangers and extensive lists the last three nights in a row?  Many authors are obsessive like this, but most prefer to cover it up and then claim that they’re “just writing about life.”  Maybe it is Borges’ formidable literary awareness that allows him to be forthright that he is a three-or-four trick pony in terms of theme.  History tells us that writers are too small and too short-lived to open up all life’s boxes, so why be pretentious?  Better to find a suitable style and a nagging interest and play variations on that tune until you’re arthritic (or blind) and have to quit.  I’ve come to think that Borges writes about his own particular interest with a concision and genius that is actually unique.

I think it is possible to condense a singular “Borgesian interest.”  An expert could do it better and maybe I’ll look one up.  As an amateur trying it, I’d say Borges writes about the unbearable feeling of overabundance that comes from all thought and imagination.  Borges is not a philosopher in that he doesn’t proceed much farther than the feeling.  He doesn’t aim to systematize or give much advice, which may be why some want to call him a minor writer (e.g. Didn’t Nietzsche go farther?  Didn’t the existentialists do more justice to that kind of problem?)  But Borges goes deeper into that feeling by way of observation than many who try to explain it or fix it.

I currently say that the story “The Garden of Forking Paths” is the beginning and the end of Borges’ corpus.  It is his most lucid and wonderful depiction of the kind of thing he is haunted and fascinated by.  In it, a Chinese Nazi spy goes to hunt down a certain Englishman named Stephen Albert. Albert turns out to be a literary scholar who studies an ancient Chinese novelist named Ts’ui Pen.  The spy, coincidentally the great-grandson of Ts’ui Pen, knows that the novelist “renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.”  From Dr. Albert, he learns that the tasks are one and the same, that the book is itself the labyrinth; and that what makes it so is its attempt to present, not a chronological narrative, but one that presents parallel accounts based on the potentialities of choice and so “embraces all possibilities of time.”  A long quotation will help.

In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses— simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. Here, then, is the explanation of the novel’s contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger calls at his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally, there are several possible outcomes: Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts’ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings. Sometimes, the paths of this labyrinth converge: for example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another, my friend.

The last century’s science fiction has given no end of “dimensions” and “alternate realities” (though not without the influential work of Borges himself).  Oddly, hard science itself has progressed in the direction of “multiverse” theories that posit the simultaneous existence of infinite variations of physical forces, making the weird existence of our own universe somehow more believable.  Borges was certainly interested in such theories, but not in their viability according to physics.  More in their inevitability within living experience.  An idealism (“western,” “European,” “Christian,” whatever) tells us that time is one necessary link after another, that the way things go is the way they’re supposed to go.  But a little thinking causes us to experience it otherwise.  If we are walking between two hedges (or “in a yellow wood”) and the path forks right and left, perhaps some set of criteria will cause us to choose left.  If we’re in a hurry or we feel strongly about our choice, our mind will essentially erase the very existence of the potential right turn.  It will seem as if the hedges or the trees were only there to mark our holy path toward the fated future.  But if we are at leisure to consider the choice (or simply lost), the strangeness of the situation floods our minds.  If we had turned right instead, what would have happened?  There might have been another fork after, with another right and left, and then each might have forked again, with some choices leading to dead-ends while some led to further forks.  Meanwhile, none of this even includes the path I have actually chosen to take.  The reality of choices forms mentally into a perplexing endless maze–even if the choices are not the literal hedge-lined paths I’ve suggested.  The effect is what I have above called “overabundance.”  The Chinese spy in the story calls it a swarming feeling: “From that moment on, I felt about me and within my dark body an invisible, intangible swarming…. It seemed to me that the humid garden that surrounded the house was infinitely saturated with invisible persons.”  The various potentialities existing in different versions of time feel palpably present when they are considered.

Why do unreal potentialities swarm about us and overload our minds when we consider them?  Why are we perplexed by mazes and haunted sometimes by–another favorite symbolic prop of Borges’–reflections in mirrors?  The reason is that potentialities are, in a way, more real than the idealisms that guide our choices and perceptions.  I may believe that left is better than right or even that I must go left, but what is more true is that I may go either way.  What exists actually is the labyrinth of possibilities.  If given the choice to steal something, I may conceive of myself as definitely a thief or as definitely not a thief, but what is closest to the truth of the situation is that I could be a thief or not; that, at least before I choose (and perhaps after in a sense), I am both.  After the fact, I have indeed brought into the tangible world a single outcome.  But if I now think that my decision was necessary or inevitable, I am fantasizing, because what is most real is the choice.  In other words, the world of potentialities is the world of concrete reality; the world of decisions and the criteria by which we make them is abstract.  A mirror shows me an empirically explicable image of myself, but it reminds me unsettlingly that another self is utterly as possible as the self I think I am.  That self lurks in every free choice, in every forking of paths.

Hamlet is about this, to a degree.  When Horatio doubts the reality of the dead king’s ghost, the prince utters that sublime line–“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Hamlet’s distinction is between “things” and  “philosophy.”  An ideology skeptical of ghostly apparitions may purport to be based in empirical fact, but it is still an abstract notion that interprets the world.  It is less real than the world of potentiality, meaning that “Ghosts may or may not exist” is always a more concrete and basic truth that “Ghosts do not exist.”  The play is largely concerned with the prince’s inability to make the firm decision to kill his uncle.  The hindrance seems to be his tendency to overthink situations, or rather (as I hypothesize) that his sensitivity to potentiality is stronger than his idealism.  It is clear vision, not delusion, that keeps Hamlet from either taking revenge or killing himself.  He sees the possibilities too clearly, and stands still in his labyrinth, unable to move.  There appears in Hamlet an excess of imagination, which accounts for both his elaborate schemes and his irresoluteness.

Of course, there is far more in Hamlet, but it connects at that point.  A more complete connection is to Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  Popularly quoted as a bit of self-congratulation for being adventurous, the poem really has more in common with the Borges’ explorations of potentiality.  In it, the speaker has little grounds for preference of one road over the other.  In fact he says he was “sorry I could not travel both / and be one traveler,”  which reminds of Dr. Albert’s explanation of how the spy is his friend in one reality and his enemy in a parallel one–the same man on two divergent paths.  The speaker in Frost’s poem ultimately chooses the road that “wanted wear,” but notes that the difference between the two is trivial:

Though as for that the passing there
had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

Indeed, the poem little emphasizes the difference between the two possibilities–its main concern is the divergence itself.  The speaker goes down his chosen path with his mind first on the path he did not take (which gives the poem its title): “I kept the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads onto way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.”  The key emotion here is a conflicted wistfulness about having chosen one path and not the other–indeed a vexation about the necessity of even making a choice that excludes other possibilities.  Thus it is “with a sigh” that the poem’s iconic final lines are said: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”  The conclusion is the ambiguous phrase, “all the difference,” often taken to recommend the virtue of taking little-used roads.  But the description of how the speaker arrives at the conclusion does not suggest this.  Rather, the impression he comes away with is the strange impression of “difference” that arises from considering choices.  How he might have experienced “way leading onto way” if he had chosen the slightly-better-used road is entirely unclear.  All that remains is the utterly concrete fact that he made a choice–that a whole series of unknowable potentialities would have been opened had he chosen differently.  The criteria by which he made his decision were admittedly trivial and abstract by comparison to the vivid reality of the fork in the road.

Granted, the Frost poem precedes the Borges story in composition, so I am not suggesting that Borges introduced a theme that Frost later played with.  There many forking paths, including Frost’s, before Borges’ garden of them.  Rather, I am overreading Frost in light of Borges.  Frost was talking about indecisiveness, but Borges lends a dramatic and accurate way of interpreting the feeling that accompanies decision-making to begin with.  For him, strange doppelgangers and unknown ghosts (“more things than are dreamt of”) lurk on every Road Not Taken.


Note: Though I ended before without saying everything that could be said, one interesting thing is the connection between the topic of potentialities and Borges’ tendency to include long lists of concrete objects in his writing (see, e.g., “The Aleph”).  Recall how we said that the world of possibility is the concrete, rather than the abstract, world.  To consider all possible choices is to expand and enumerate the world, to involve more things.  In abstract idealism there are a very few select “things”–present because of their “significance”–while most “things” recede into the periphery.  It would be confusing to consider them.  This is why, for instance, it is unsettling that a young man flees naked at the arrest of Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Why include this in the briefest gospel account, since no prophecy proceeds to it, nor theology from it?  Borges is interested in getting as close as possible to universal reality by way of random listing, since this is closest to what we concretely experience.