Reaching for books which aren’t there

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.

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6 Responses to “Reaching for books which aren’t there”

  1. Steve Says:

    I have the book, but it’s stored in my little sister’s attic in Streatham. You can imagine how I regret that error of book-triage.

  2. Steve Says:

    Foucault’s lazy and offensive nonsense about the Chinese having no history

    I cannot find any such nonsense; could you indicate where it is to be found in the Preface? What I can find is the following:

    the mythical homeland Borges assigns to that distortion of classification that prevents us from applying it, to that picture that lacks all spatial coherence, is a precise region whose name alone constitutes for the West a vast reservoir of utopias. In our dreamworld, is not China precisely this privileged site of space? In our traditional imagery, the Chinese culture is the most meticulous, the most rigidly ordered, the one most deaf to temporal events, most attached to the pure delineation of space; we think of it as a civilization of dikes and dams beneath the eternal face of the sky; we see it, spread and frozen, over the entire surface of a continent surrounded by walls. Even its writing does not reproduce the fugitive flight of the voice in horizontal lines; it erects the motionless and still-recognizeable images of things themselves in vertical columns. So much so that the Chinese encyclopaedia quoted by Borges, and the taxonomy it proposes, lead to a kind of thought without space, to words and categories that lack all life and place, but are rooted in a ceremonial space, overburdened with complex figures, with tangled paths, strange places, secret passages, and unexpected communications. There would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture entirely devoted to the order- ing of space, but one that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak, and think.

    [I am quoting this translation [pdf].]

    Obviously Foucault here is invoking a Western perception of China, if you will an Orientalist one — not saying that he actually thinks that is all true of China.

  3. 01factory Says:

    Steve, you may be right: maybe it’s me that’s guilty of lazy and offensive reading. And yet it doesn’t seem to me that Foucault is simply wanting to anatomize a Western perception from a clearly distanced perspective: he’s enjoying his riff too much. Given that Mao was busy launching the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the passage just seems, to use Foucault’s phrase, itself rather extraordinarily “deaf to temporal events”. But my main beef was that, by leaving out Brussels and solely focussing (however adroitly) on China, Foucault misleadingly made Borges assign “distortion of classification” to a conveniently distant “mythical homeland”.

  4. Steve Says:

    Yes, your point about his ignoring Brussels seems quite true. I suppose it is in the nature of the French to ignore Brussels whenever possible.

  5. padwag23 Says:

    yes, except when it comes to stealing their chips.

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