Wall_Books - BOrges -...

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Unformatted text preview: Séi‘iii’ééoéfieé‘fiieBfi’fé? Jorge Luis Borges pica-mm A PERSONAL ANTHOLQGY Edited and with (1 Foreword by Anthony Kerrigan GROVE PRESS / NEW YORK THE WALL AND THE BOOKS He, whose long wall the wand’ring Tartar bounds . . . —Dunciad, II, 76. I read, a few days ago, that the man who ordered the al- most infinite wall of China to be built was that First Em- , peror, Shih Huang Ti, who likewise ordered all books antedating him to be burned. That these two vast under- , takings—the five or six hundred leagues of stone thrown up against the barbarians, and the rigorous abolition of history, that is, of the past—should originate with the same person and be in some way his attributes, inexplicably pleased and, ' at the same time, disturbed me. The purpose of this note ; is to examine the reasons for that emotion. ’ Historically speaking, there is no mystery about the two ‘ measures. Contemporaneous with the wars of Hannibal, Shih Huang Ti, the king of Tsin, took control of the Six V Kingdoms and wiped out their feudal system; he built the wall because walls were defenses; he burned the books be- cause the opposition invoked them in order to praise the ancient emperors. Burning books and building fortifications are occupations common among princes; what was singular in the case of Shih Huang Ti was the scale on which he operated. This is what we are given to understand by cer- tain Sinologists; I feel, however, that the facts I have re— lated are something more than an exaggeration or a hyperbole for relatively trivial acts. Walling off an orchard or a garden is common enough, but not walling off an em- pire. Again, it is no trifle to require the most traditional of races to renounce its memory of the past, whether mythical 89 7i: 5? w «m; waitswvwaéstz 1" 90 / Jorge Luis Borges or real. The Chinese had a recorded history of 3000 years (which included, during those years, the Yellow Emperor and Chuang Tzu and Confucius and Lao Tzu) when Shih Huang Ti ordered that history begin with him. Shih Huang Ti had exiled his mother for being a liber- tine; the orthodox found this stern justice to be entirely impious; perhaps Shih Huang Ti wished to wipe out the canonical books because they accused him; perhaps Shih Huang Ti wished to abolish the whole of the past because he wished to abolish a single memory: that of his mother’s disgrace. (In the same way, a king, in Judea, killed all the children in order to kill one child.) This conjecture merits attention, but it tells us nothing of the wall, the myth’s second facet. Shih Huang Ti, according to historians, for- bade the mention of death and searched for the elixir of immortality and shut himself up in a symbolic palace that had as many rooms as there are days in the year; this suggests that the wall in space and the confiagration in time were magical barriers designed to hold back death. Baruch Spinoza has written that all things desire to persist in their being; perhaps the Emperor and his wizards believed im— mortality to be inherent and that corruption cannot enter a closed circle. Perhaps the Emperor wanted to re-create the beginning of time and called himself the First in order to be indeed first and named himself Huang Ti in order to somehow be Huang Ti, that legendary emperor who invented writing and the compass. The latter, according to the Book of Rites, gave things their true names; similarly, Shih Huang Ti boasted, on inscriptions that still endure, that during his dominion each thing would have the name befitting it. He dreamed of founding an immortal dynasty and commanded his heirs to call themselves Second Em— peror, Third Emperor, Fourth Emperor, and so on to in- finity. . . . I have spoken of a magical intention. It may also be supposed that the erection of the wall and the burning APersomzl Anthology / 91 of the books were not simultaneous acts. This would, ac- cording to the order we preferred, give us the image of a king who began by destroying but then resigned himself to preserving, or of a disillusioned king who undertook to destroy what he had previously defended. Both conjectures are dramatic, but are, so far as I know, without historical foundation. Herbert Allen Giles tells us that those guilty of concealing books were branded with a red-hot iron and condemned to work for the rest of their lives on the mon- strous wall. This item favors or at least admits of another interpretation. Perhaps the wall was a metaphor and Shih Huang Ti condemned those who adored the past to a task as vast, as stupid, and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past, and I and my executioners are helpless against that love, but some day there will be a man who feels as I do, and he will destroy my wall as I have de- stroyed the books, and he will obliterate my memory and will be my shadow and my mirror and will not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in the empire because he knew it to be perishable and destroyed the books because they were sacred books, books that teach what the entire universe or the conscience of each man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the construction of the wall are undertakings that secretly cancel themselves. The firm wall, which at this and in every moment casts its system of shadows over lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of na~ tions to burn its past; it is likely that, aside from the con— jectures it permits, this idea itself moves us. (Its virtue may reside in its opposition, on an enormous scale, between constructing and destroying.) Generalizing upon this, we might infer that all forms possess their virtue in themselves and not in any conjectural “content.” This would accord with Benedetto Croce’s thesis; and Pater had already, in 92 / Iorge Luis Borges 1877, asserted that all the arts aspire to the condition of music, which'is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces scored by time, certain twilights, certain places, all want to tell us something, or told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us some— thing. This imminence of a revelation that does not take place is, perhaps, the esthetic fact. ——Translated by IRVING FELDMAN ...
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This note was uploaded on 02/06/2012 for the course COMPLIT 322 taught by Professor Shammas during the Winter '11 term at University of Michigan.

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Wall_Books - BOrges -...

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