17 December 2006

A Chaos of Heterogeneous Words

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 8:33 pm


In London, in early June of the year 1929, the rare book dealer Joseph Cartaphilus, of Smyrna, offered the princess de Lucinge the six quarto minor volumes (1715-1720) of Pope’s Iliad.

– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Immortal,” 1949

An emaciated, grimy man with gray eyes and gray beard and singularly vague features, Cartaphilus would be dead by October of that year. The princess would later discover, inserted between the leaves of the last volume, a manuscript purportedly written during Diocletian’s reign in the Immortal’s own hand. He tells of organizing an expedition in search of the legendary River beyond the Ganges that bestows immortality on those who drink of its waters; of his abandonment in the desert and his subsequent capture by unseen enemies; of awakening at the foot of a mountain beside which ran a noiseless, impure stream, clogged by sand and rubble; of the mute serpent-eating Troglodytes who lived in shallow holes dug in the arid banks; of the dazzling City perched on the stream’s nether shore, a City perfect in its artifice and older than the world itself. The writer wandered the labyrinthine symmetries of a vast and magnificent structure: This Palace is the work of the gods, he thought at first; then, realizing that the City had been deserted ages ago, The gods that built this place have died; finally, as in terror and repulsion he explored its endless and complex futilities, The gods that built this place were mad.

The dismayed explorer encamped with the Troglodytes. One, whom he named Argos, proved wholly indifferent to any sort of language. On the night it rained, the hole-dweller looked into the sky and moaned. Argos! the traveler cried out.

Then, with gentle wonder, as though discovering something lost and forgotten for many years, Argos stammered out these words: Argos, Ulysses’ dog. And then, without looking at me, This dog is lying on the dungheap. We accept reality so readily – perhaps because we sense that nothing is real. I asked Argos how much of the Odyssey he knew. He found using Greek difficult; I had to repeat the question. Very little, he replied. Less than the merest rhapsode. It has been eleven hundred years since last I wrote it.

The Troglodytes were the Immortals; Argos was Homer; the clogged stream was the River. The Immortals had destroyed their City nearly a thousand years before.

Out of the shattered remains of the City’s ruin they had built on the same spot the incoherent city I had wandered through – that parody or antithesis of City which is also a temple to the irrational gods that rule the world and to those gods about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man.

Having drunk from the River, the traveler had become like one of them. He came to know what Solomon knew: when there is nothing new under the sun, then immortality is reduced to futility.

There is nothing remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal.

Eventually the Immortal would come to believe that only a mortal life is worth living, its value defined precisely by its precarious contingency. If this River exists, reasoned the Immmortal, then somewhere too its opposite must exist. And so he began his second quest.

For sixteen hundred years the Immmortal wandered the earth. In October 1921 he found himself headed for Bombay aboard the Patna, that rusty yet seemingly unsinkable steamer that Lord Jim had so disgracefully abandoned twenty-some years before. The hulk ran aground on the Eritrean coast of the Red Sea; the Immortal disembarked, tasted the clear water of a spring, scratched his hand on a thorn tree, watched as the drop of blood slowly took shape. He had found the other river; he was once again like other men.

Remarkable? So much so that even the writer doubted the veracity of his own manuscript, seeing in it the commingled memories of not one but two men: the traveler who, having become the Immortal, would at last reclaim his mortality, and Homer. The traveler, now become a dealer in rare books, no longer remembered the events in his own narrative. Could Homer have written the Odyssey again, this time with a different hero whose divergent pursuits would inevitably lead to the selfsame fate? Perhaps Homer, the narrator of myth, is the only Immortal. As the end approaches, wrote Cartaphilus at the end of his manuscript, there are no longer any images from memory – there are only words.

After careful scrutiny by textual and source critics, the manuscript attributed to Cartaphilus the Immortal was dismissed as apocryphal.



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