Wondering how to characterize my motivation for starting a blog, I went to some shelves behind me for a book I unreflectively expected to be there: Selected Non-Fictions, Eliot Weinberger’s wonderful edition of essays by Borges. Now I realise it’s not that the book’s in another room, or the attic, or the office, or my parents’ home, or even that I’ve lent or lost it. The sad fact is that I’ve never actually owned a copy. I live in Cambridge, a town which once boasted a central public library – it’s supposed to open again in a year or so, when they’ve surrounded it with a larger shopping mall – and after I borrowed the book there, I never carried through on my plan to buy a copy to scribble over and reread in the bath.
That was two years ago: I remember that, after returning the book, I was annoyed by the fact that there was then no entire transcription of ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ available on the web. The infamous taxonomy of animals, ‘which Dr. Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’, was widely reproduced: it had come to take central place in the international reception of the essay. Yet it seemed to have spawned all manner of peculiar wish-fulfilment and displacement, even amongst readers one might hope to be far more intelligent: witness Foucault’s lazy and offensive nonsense about the Chinese having no history in the preface to Les mots et les choses, or Louis Sass’s extraordinary characterization of ‘Chinese’ thinking as schizophrenic hyperreflexivity.
Why can’t people do the decent thing, and pay just a little attention to context? It’s not as if Borges himself left taxonomic confusion as something so conveniently exotic. His selective readers only do so by entirely neglecting to mention the very next paragraph of the essay, in which Borges himself brought the point home:
The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels exerts chaos too: it has divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, from which number 262 is the Pope; number 282, the Roman Catholic Church; 263, the Day of the Lord; 268 Sunday schools; 298, Mormonism; and number 294, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. It doesn’t reject heterogeneous subdivisions as, for example, 179: “Cruelty towards animals. Protection of Animals. Moral implications of duelling and suicide. Vices and various defects. Virtues and various qualities.”
But there’s also the historical context of the essay itself. One of the most excellent features of Weinberger’s collection is that its chronological arrangement allows any reader to follow Borges’s personal literary trajectory. For instance, the collection makes plain Borges’s fascination with Philip Henry Gosse – responsible, amongst other things, for introducing aquaria to England – at the time of the Wilkins essay. Which nicely colours some of the fishiness swimming through the essay: if you must start from the paragraph on the Chinese encyclopaedia, you need only return upstream for a single sentence to be told where Wilkins placed beauty.
After these two years, too, I can still recall the frisson of going to the university library for Franz Kuhn’s 1935 Der Kleine Goldfischteich : kolorierte Stiche nach chinesischen Aquarellen – a republication and discussion of François Nicolas Martinet’s 1780 Histoire naturelle des dorades de la Chine – only to be told that the copy I’d ordered had been temporarily removed by a member of the library staff. Some frustrations to the reader’s reach have the force of sign. Less delightful, if as wonderful, had been my experience in turning those early pages of a college library’s copy of The Order of Things (Tavistock Publications, paperback edition), and finding each crudely glued leaf breaking away in my hand as I did so.
But beyond biographical trajectories – whether of writer, or reader – lie historical contexts which can be familiarly specified in far less personal terms. Borges wrote the essay in 1941: to spell out why one might have wanted to reflect upon the fate of the Brussels International Institute of Bibliography in that year is left, as they say, as an exercise for the reader.