Sunday, December 26, 2010

Labyrinths of Art and Nations: The Infinite Maze of All Times in One


"The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of.  It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body.  When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.  You talk to me of nationality, language, religion.  I shall try to fly by those nets." (Joyce 203)

            At a time of rising nationalism in Ireland, James Joyce presented the autobiographical character of Stephen Dedalus coming of age in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Though Irish independence awakens Stephen in his youth, he understands that he must leave Ireland in order to be an independent artist at the end of the novel.  Personal and cultural history is presented as a labyrinth which traps individuality and limits artistic vision.  The idea of the labyrinth comes from Greek mythology.  The inventor Daedalus invented the first labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, and the minotaur was placed in the center of the maze.  The half-bull, half-man monster was fed by those who were forced to enter the labyrinth until he was killed by Theseus, who was able to find his way out of the maze by the thread spooled out by Ariadne, the daughter of the king.  In Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, the idea of a labyrinth is not simply a motif in his mysterious stories, it is a philosophical obsession.  Like Joyce, Borges is keenly aware of the endless maze of nationality, language, and religion into which each person is born, and thereby trapped in its endless corridors.  Like Joyce’s vision of a continuous present, Borges also has a different vision of time.  The movement for independence in Argentina makes Borges and Joyce kindred spirits artistically, and the experience of Irishmen is presented in several of the stories in Labyrinths, including “The Garden of the Forking Paths.”  There is ambivalence in Joyce and Borges about the idea of a nation state.  Nationality, language, culture, and religion throw nets upon the human soul.  But Daedelus was also the inventor of flight, and Joyce and Borges fashion wings of artistic escape from the historical mazes of their times.  Art is intended to awaken the reader to his or her wanderings in the maze, and the monsters that are right in front of us.  The dawning realization in “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that the unquestioned behavior of nation states is the nightmare which we keep repeating.  On a large scale, nation states shape the history we are telling, the labyrinth we keep making of the past and the future.  At the center of the story’s maze is a new vision of time itself, one which is capable of lifting the reader above the labyrinth of culture and nations.    
In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Jorge Luis Borges combines a story about espionage during World War I with a new philosophical vision of time.  The spy story is told by Yu Tsun, a Chinese man of culture who is a German agent working in England.  His enemy is Captain Richard Madden, an Irishman working for the British in the area of counter espionage.  The motivations of Richard Madden and Yu Tsun are brought into question at the beginning of the story.  The Irish movement for independence from the Britain was largely suspended during World War I, but a terrorist war against the British would begin in earnest after the world war was over.  Richard Madden is an Irishman working with the British Empire, not against it.  Yu Tsun comments on the bizarre condition of his pursuer: “An Irishman at the service of England, a man accused of laxity and perhaps of treason, how could he fail to seize and be thankful for such a miraculous opportunity: the discovery, capture, maybe even the death of two agents of the German Empire?”(pgs. 19-20)  However, Yu Tsun’s motivation is even stranger: “I did it because I sensed that the Chief somehow scorned people of my race—for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me.  I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies.”(p. 21)  Though Yu Tsun believes Germany to be a barbarous country, his love of Goethe, whom he sees in the mysterious German “Chief,” is enough for him to work for the Germans.  The relationship of Richard Madden and Yu Tsun, who are locked in mortal combat, is a microcosm of the bizarre entanglements of World War I itself.  Nation states clearly make individuals behave very strangely.  History sorts everything out, but, in the present, reality can certainly be a labyrinth where the individual is completely lost, and often forgotten completely.  He can also be so lost that he doesn’t know he is in a labyrinth at all.
In both the structure of the story and in the characters themselves, Borges is questioning how we tell the story of human history.  His cryptic spy story begins with a reference to a history text about why a particular British artillery attack was delayed.  It was an insignificant event, according to the historian Liddel Hart in his History of World War I.  The five day delay occupies a single reference on a page 252 of Hart’s history text.  This version of history is contrasted with the written testimony of Dr. Yu Tsun, which just happens to be the same name as the Chinese agent who was captured and supposedly killed by Richard Madden.  Yu Tsun is very clear that he dies in this story, but other possibilities unfold mysteriously at the end.  Yu Tsun is able to read about his exploits in the newspaper, and to apparently release the story itself (with two missing pages) at the beginning.  As the new history is told differently by Borges, there is a simultaneous breakdown of ideas about identity and time.  They are no longer singular, and no longer uniform. 
As Yu Tsun travels on his mission of assassination, he reflects on the nature of time in the present: “Then I reflected that everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now.  Centuries and centuries and only in the present do things happen; countless men in the air, on the face of the earth and sea, and all that really is happening is happening to me…”(p. 20)  There is a lively sense of Chinese ancestry which motivates Yu Tsun; there are many people who merge inside of him, as he tells the reader early in the story.  This feeling only intensifies.  His life began a long time ago in the lives of his ancestors, and his decisions will live forever in the future.  He describes the feeling of the night itself: “The evening was intimate, infinite.”(p. 23)  From Yu Tsun’s personal reflections, the reader learns that the idea of the labyrinth runs in his family; it is in his blood.  His grandfather Ts’ui Pen left his position as a governor of Yunnan to construct a physical labyrinth.  As soon as Yu Tsun leaves the train in the English countryside, he is aware of the labyrinthine dimension of his own journey with the directions that he receives to always turn left: “The instructions to turn always to the left reminded me that such was the common procedure for discovering the central points of certain labyrinths.”(p. 22) 
At the center of Yu Tsun’s journey and secret mission is Stephen Albert, a Sinologist who has studied the literature of Ts’ui Pen.  The Englishman has even created an indoor Chinese garden around the life work of Yu Tsun’s grandfather, a chaotic and incoherent novel called The Garden of Forking Paths.  Albert explains that Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth was the book itself, not an actual maze.  The novel attempted to find, and embody in structure, an altogether different vision of time.  Stephen Albert explains the philosophy of Yu Tsun’s grandfather: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses--simultaneously—all of them.  He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.”(p. 26)  As the new vision of time hovers in the air between the two men, a sense of multiple realities is present to the narrator: “It seemed to me that the human garden that surrounded the house was infinitely saturated with invisible persons.”(p. 28)  Though Stephen Albert enlightens the grandson of Ts’ui Pen with his ancestor’s theories, Yu Tsun still has a decision to make: whether to carry out his secret mission.  At the center of the maze of his own life, Yu Tsun makes his decision; he murders the scholar by shooting him in the back.  Because of this murder, according to Yu Tsun, a British town named Albert is bombed.  None of this is recorded in Hart’s history.     
The story “The Garden of Forking Paths” attempts to bring into question, and ultimately replace, the concept of linear history.  Time is not absolute or uniform in the central theory of the story, but is rather divergent, multiple, and circular.  I won’t pretend to know exactly what this means, but it is clear that human history itself has an artificial beginning and ending.  Even the Big Bang is not really the beginning of time itself; it’s only what we can imagine, with the help of science, the primal beginning to be.  The story of a person’s life has artificial beginning and ending points as well.  But, in actuality, there is no beginning and no ending, not really.  Borges is intentionally breaking down the walls of the man made labyrinth of human history.  It didn’t come down from heaven.  The earth doesn’t actually have boundaries between countries.  Yu Tsun reflects about nature at a time of war: “I thought that a man may be an enemy of other men, of the moments of other men, but not of a country: not of fireflies, words, gardens, streams of waters, sunsets.”(p. 23)  We are living in the maze that we made; it is our alleged story of linear progress.  But in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Jorge Luis Borges turns things completely around.  An artistic vision of liberation from linear time is born in the center of the story’s maze, and we can lift in flight, and see further, for just a moment: above the walls of nations, borders, wars, and linear history.  It is all one continuous present.  Borges doesn’t stretch time out by saying that time goes on infinitely in the past, and in the future, as a linear vision of eternity, the unquestioned Christian teleology.  He connects the infinite past to an infinite future in a present loop, which the story itself models.  The end of the story takes the reader back to the beginning.  There are, however, two missing pages, which presumably would explain how Yu Tsun managed to become an English professor after his death.
In Chester G. Anderson’s explanatory notes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce chose the name Stephen because Stephen was the first martyr of the Christian faith. (Joyce 487)  He also fell from a great height to his death like Icarus, the son of Daedelus.  Though his son perishes, Daedelus successfully flies from his prison cell.  Stephen’s Christianity, the faith for which he died, presented a linear vision of time and progress, along with an eternity that God inhabits beyond human history.  Perhaps Borges is completing the circle of linear history with the name of Albert.  The philosophical cat has possibly caught his own tail on the subject of time.  The beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, are brought together in the name Stephen Albert.  Albert is not only the last name of the English Sinologist, it is the name of the English village that is bombed.  According to Yu Tsun, the assassination of Albert was understood to be the name of the place with the artillery factory.  Albert is killed, and then Albert is bombed.  When a symbol is doubled, it becomes more significant.  If Stephen is the alpha who first died for Christian teleology, who is the omega at the end?  Albert Einstein’s work on the atomic bomb ended the nightmare of World War II, the war that was created by the first one, after Liddel Hart had finished the artificial ending of his history text.  Einstein’s scientific theories continued, and intensified, the modern nightmare of nation states which are poised to destroy the planet, along with each other.  A weapon, designed by Jewish scientists, was supposed to be used on the Germans, but the atomic bomb was instead dropped on Asia.  Yu Tsun and Richard Madden aren’t so strange in human history.  It is difficult for even the best-informed, most brilliant individual to accurately locate himself in the labyrinth of linear time.  Even if he could, would Einstein or anyone else make a different decision?  After Yu Tsun becomes aware of himself in the center of the maze, and the many selves that he could be by any one decision in the span of human history, the spy chooses to fulfill his duty; he shoots the man with whom he couldn’t have more in common.  The infinite dream, the looping narrative, of Borges is disturbing and mysterious.  It is a place where all times come together in a strange center, one that breaks down the artificial boundaries between all human beings, past, present, and future.  As strange and unsettling as this dream of reality may be, the nightmare of human history that we keep repeating is far more dangerous.  

Works Cited List
1. James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

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