EXTRACT FROM: Jorge Luis Borges ‘The Immortal’ In The Aleph (Andrew Hurley Trans) London: Penguin Books, pp 3-4, 9.
Solomon saith: There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Solomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.
Francis Bacon: Essays LVIII
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. The princess purchased them; when she took posession of them, she exchanged a few words with the dealer. He was, she says an emaciated, grimy man with gray eyes and gray beard and singularly vague features. He expressed himself with untutored and uncorrected fluency in several languages; within scant minutes he shifted from French to English and from English to an enigmatic cross between the Spanish of Salonika and the Portuguese of Macao. In October, the princess heard from a passenger on the Zeus that Cartaphilus had died at sea while returning to Smyrna, and that he had been buried on the island of Ios. In the last volume of the Iliad she found this manuscript.
It is written in an English that teems with Latinisms; this is a verbatim transcription of the document.
As I recall, my travails began in a garden in the hundred-gated Thebes, in the time of the emperor Diocletian. I had fought (with no glory) in the recent Egyptian wars and was tribune of a legion quartered in Berenice, on the banks of the Red Sea; there, fever and magic consumed many men who magnanimously coveted the steel blade. The Mauritanians were defeated; the lands once occupied by the rebel cities were dedicated in aeternitatem to the Plutonian gods; Alexandria, subdued, in vain sought Caesar’s mercy; within the year the legions were to report their triumph, but I myself barely glimpsed the face of Mars. That privation grieved me, and was perhaps why I threw myself into the quest, through vagrant and terrible deserts, for the secret City of the Immortals.
My travails, I have said, began in a garden in Thebes. All that night I did not sleep, for there was a combat in my heart. I rose at last a little before dawn. My slaves were sleeping; the moon was the colour of infinite sand. A bloody rider was approaching from the east, weak with exhaustion. A few steps from me, he dismounted and in a faint, insatiable voice, asked me, in Latin, the name of the river whose waters laved the city’s walls. I told him it was the Egypt, fed by the rains. ‘It is another river that I seek’ he replied morosely, ‘the secret river that purifies men of death’. Dark blood was welling from his breast. He told me that the country of his birth was a mountain that lay beyond the Ganges; it was rumoured on that mountain, he told me, that if one travelled westward, to the end of the world, one would come to the river whose waters give immortality. He added that on the far sore of that river lay the City of Immortals, a city rich in bulwarks and amphitheatres and temples.
I emerged into a kind of small plaza – a courtyard might better describe it. It was surrounded by a single building of irregular angles and varying heights. It was to this heterogeneous building that the many cupolas and columns belonged. … Cautiously at first, with indifference as time went on, desperately towards the end, I wandered the staircases and inlaid floors of that labyrinthine palace. (I discovered afterward that the width and height of the treads on the staircases were not constant; it was this that explained the extraordinary weariness I felt.) This palace is the work of the gods, was my first thought. I explored the uninhabited spaces, and I corrected myself: The gods that built this place have died. Then I reflected upon its peculiarities and told myself: The gods that built this place were mad.
END OF EXTRACT
The short story The Immortal, by the Argentinian poet Borges, was first published right after the war, in February 1947. It reflects on the futility of culture and civilisation, the collective nature of seemingly personal, individual achievement, and the tantalising nature of death. It is well worth a read – philosophically enchanting, imaginatively rich. There is a twist in the story which makes is more than just another one of these alien lost city fantasies, and renders it quite thought provoking. Needless to say, Borges’ image of the mad immortal city, with stairs that lead nowhere, grand doors that open onto shafts or cells and so forth, a construction of the most exquisitely complex irrationality, continues to fascinate architects and artists. This also puts one in mind of the Winchester house in San Jose California, an actually existing irrational construction born from the fear of Sarah Winchester, widow of the Winchester rifle magnate William Wirt Winchester, that, should construction works in the house ever cease, she would die. What she was building, for 38 years, both day and night, was a home for herself and the souls of all the people killed by Winchester rifles.