“In his lifetime, he suffered from unreality, as do so many Englishmen; once dead, he is not even the ghost he was then.” — Jorge Luis Vorges, “Tlön,Uqbar, Orbis Tercius”

Can someone please tell me what this means?

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Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.

0 thoughts on “Um…”

  1. It means that many Englishmen are unreal, and when Ashe died, he was no longer anything, not even the (unreal) ghost he was while alive.

    Luckily, i have Borges in the original Spanish: “En vida padeció de irrealidad, como tantos ingleses; muerto, no es siquiera el fantasma que ya era entonces.” I’d translate that as “During his life” instead of “In his lifetime”, for what that’s worth.

  2. I’m going to hazard a guess. In general, the English are overly concerned with abstractions, or with misleading or distorting notions of how the world works, or with fantasy and the imagination as broadly construed. They are insufficiently engaged with what is real, concrete, and meaningful (which makes them metaphorical ghosts). Once one of them (a particular character) is gone, the world has nothing to show for this person having been here, because of this tendency to live on a more abstract plane.

  3. Just as a blind guess…

    I’d translate it as, “He was not a very charismatic or dramatic person. You barely knew he was there at all, and you forgot him once he was out of your sight and hearing. When he died, nobody remembered him because he was not memorable.”

    I tend to be overly literal at times, so have your grain of salt handy.

  4. Hmm… given the other translations as well and a brief skimming of material about the story that I could dig up with a fast search, I think what it’s actually talking about is a kind of cog-in-a-machine effect, a way of living one’s life as though it is somehow not real, as though the choices one makes don’t matter.

    I guess the American version would be the office or factory worker who shows up every day and does their work and goes home and is just sort of taking up space? And maybe that person had dreams once, but they are no longer thinking about them, they have just fallen into the daily routine and feel anonymous and invisible within the greater world.

    By saying that once dead, he’s even more of a ghost than he was, I think the author is saying that there is no longer any power to change things, and the cog gets replaced and no one is the wiser, and the person made no difference.

    Being as I have not read the whole work, I could be way off base here, but that’s my take. :)

  5. I believe it’s “Orbis Ter{t}ius” (T not C). A reasonable confusion, though.

    As far as content goes, I’ll second those who have already commented.

  6. Everyone past eve_prime is being way too literal. This is Borges. It’s also, let’s not forget, an Argentinian writing about the English. He’s both being funny and also contrasting their (imagined) way of live to the (imagined) Argentinian way of life, and finding the former lacking in colour, in passion, in life.

  7. I doesn’t mean anything. The writer was trying to impress and intimidate us with meaningless gibber. Think the Emperor’s new clothes.

    Please don’t write stuff like that in your books.

  8. Schmwarf, please don’t insult Borges, a writer of such great stature that on completion of his story The Aleph, his rearing enormous head shattered the crystalline sphere of the heavens, raining glittering starlike shards onto the unbelieving streets of Buenos Aires.

    Had he lived in an earlier age, this godlike writer would have ended his days staked down on a mountain tormented by a giant eagle for his presumption in bringing the resounding words of the Argentine Logos down into the dull mundane sphere in which dwells most ordinary humans.

    Anyhow, several others have given what seems to me to be a reasonably good interpretation of the quoted passage. The English often refer themselves as etiolated wraithlike creatures incapable of sustaining the passions that motivate other races. Inasmuch as I understand that he looked on English literature with a great deal of respect and admiration, I’d guess that Borges was teasing the English with their own self-denigrating attitudes in that passage.

  9. Alternatively, you might consider it as the introductory part of a hypnotic induction, and consider that Borges’s grandmother, who was a major influence in his life, was British.

  10. It’s also, let’s not forget, an Argentinian writing about the English.

    And since it’s a) fiction; and b) Borges — let’s not forget the possibility that the narrator “Borges” does not necessarily share all the predilections and prejudices of the writer “Borges”…

    It’s a lovely little line, really. The passage that follows it hints a bit at what Borges might have been implying by “unreality/irrealidad”:

    He was tall and listless and his tired rectangular beard had once been red. I understand he was a widower, without children. Every few years he would go to England, to visit (I judge from some photographs he showed us) a sundial and a few oaks. He and my father had entered into one of those close (the adjective is excessive) English friendships that begin by excluding confidences and very soon dispense with dialog. They used to carry out an exchange of books and newspapers and engage in taciturn chess games…

    (from this translation)

  11. Miramon, I don’t don’t know if you are actually rebutting what I said or if you are going along with what I said by way of dry humor.

    If it is the first thing, I’m not attacking the person. I don’t know him at all to do that. I’m having a go at his hyperliterate mumbo jumbo. It doesn’t impress me.

    And neither do words in your dialouge such as “etiolated” and “inasmuch”. I’ve never heard of those words. Maybe me great grand parents did. I’m not stagnet in my quest to better myself in my native language but who the hell talks like that in real life? I’d get my head kicked in if I was.

    If its the second thing, you funny!

  12. I agree with most of the above interpretations and this reminded me that I had started rereading Julio Cortazar’s (a wonderful (imho) writer, clearly influenced by Borges) Hopscotch and should stick with it, as it’s confusing enough without stopping to read other things.

    I have a completely unrelated question though…apparently, when I turned my back, a new genre of books has come into being, they are “paranormal erotic romances”. Was there a secret meeting and a memo sent out that I somehow missed? A friend recently handed me a stack of these and I am absolutely flabbergasted. I had no idea it was such a cottage industry. Just wondering.

  13. schmwarf@15: hahaha, they need to shorten the blog from Words Words Words, to Word. :)

    amysue@16: these are commonly called “alternate history” series now, the unifying theme being something along the lines of “hey, remember back in ’73 when the vampires came out to the world, and it took 3 years before they were allowed to vote?”… the idea being that the time is now, the place is here, but the recent past includes the supernatural being revealed as real, but without the world ending.

    You could put Anne Rice in the group, but I think she fits closer to traditional horror. Alternate History got its current wheels from Laurell K. Hamilton, and the main names (IMO) are Hamilton, Kim Harrison, and Charlaine Harris (that is, the names that have graduated up to hardcover).

    My personal favorite is Patricia Briggs, the “Mercy Thompson” books are the best written of the bunch, and they’re not stuffed to the covers with erotica, which is refreshing after reading the exploits of Anita Blake for too long.

    The field has filled way up in a hurry, you can’t walk through the scifi section now without knocking over a stack of erotic werewolf novels.

  14. Huh, I thought amysue was referring to a kind of book that actually is placed in the “Romance” section of the bookshop, not romantic fantasy in the F&SF section. Not that it matters that much, but I think there is a certain genre pecking order. SF and Mystery agree to disagree which is more respectable, but both sneer at Romance.

  15. Genre romance is getting bigger all the time, and yes these are genuine romance novels + SF, fantasy or horror/”paranormal” themes.

    While I know it is fashionable to sneer at some genres, I personally try not to participate. Some genres may interest me more than others, some genres may even be more ‘formula’ than others (much mystery for instance) but my feeling is that as long as the book entertains its target audience and leaves them satisfied, I’m not willing to sneer at the field as a whole.

    That said, I do think a lot of romance perpetuates some myths about relationships I wish would die a rapid death, but I think the books are mirrors of a broken society…

  16. schmwarf, etiolated is pretty rare outside of scientific writing on botany. Inasmuch however isn’t that uncommon, a quick search on shows that it is used in five of Steven Brust’s books for example.

  17. I was definitely referring to the books that appear in the romance section of bookstores. I have no problem with porn and no problem with the paranormal and actually no problem with combining them-but having perused a few of these they seem to be very thin on plot and the sex isn’t compelling enough to hold my interest. What confused me is that I have to assume, judging from the amount of shelf space involved that there is a sizable market for it and I had no idea!

  18. Porn is porn is porn……

    Women have a tendency to read it, men have a tendency to watch it. This is not a blanket statement, simply a tendency. It is why the romance section of bookstores have titles like “Hearts of Fire” and titles at adult video stores are along the lines of “Anal Cum-hole Schoolgirls”.

    They are, however, basically the same thing. It is also not surprising that it should creep into other genres. After a few decades, both the kidnapped Celtic virgin and the Pizza Delivery boy shtick gets old and people want to imagine sex in different situation….like in a space station or with a were leopard.

    With books, at least, one does not have to worry about building a realistic background for SF or Fantasy sex.

    It is still porn. The difference is one can feel a bit more intellectual perusing the bookstore for a copy of “A Stroke of Midnight” than searching a 24 hour video store for “Night Shift Nurses”.

    No one will ever believe you like Hentai for the plot.

  19. It was in George Orwell’s 1941 essay The Lion And The Unicorn, subtitled Socialism and the English Genius, that he wrote of Stanley Baldwin “one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air”. Near its end he summarises important parts of the national character thus: “The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies.”

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