WALLS

By: Gaither Stewart

Walls

I read recently that the conservative government of Hungary has projected a wall along the country’s southern border with Serbia to keep out clandestine Serbs who cross into Hungary in search of work. This prompted me to revive and refresh my article of several years ago and a translation of a story by Jorge Borges, both about walls.

A few years ago an amusing satirical article in the Buenos Aires leftwing daily, Pagina 12, made me want to cry. In some five thousand words the Argentinean journalist José Pablo Feinmann ridiculed, among other things, the whole concept of the great wall the U.S. Bush government projected along the border with Mexico.

“What? Raise a wall. The gringos must be very afraid,” the journalist writes. “Just suppose the Wall then becomes a Goal, a Goal that attracts people from all parts, just to see if they can reach the Goal. What would be the Goal? The Goal would be to jump over the wall. Let’s just suppose that a crazy German comes with an enormous hook and says, ‘I can jump over the Wall of the Gringos.’ And suppose the Wall then retains this name: The Wall of the Gringos.”

(The journalist goes on to recall that the word Gringo calls to mind the rancor of Latin Americans, things like the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro and “Gringos de mierda, imperialist pigs go home,” and the Wall then becomes the symbol of burgeoning North American Fascism. There are many legends about the origin of the word Gringo—perhaps from the Green Coats of American soldiers in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, “green coats go home” becomes “greens-go.” Argentineans called all immigrants, especially Italians, gringos. But as a rule today Gringo means Yankee, and is generally pejorative, even if North Americans in Mexico and southwards call themselves Gringos … but maybe that’s like whistling in the dark graveyard.)

MEN AND WALLS

Walls usually express fear and have never enjoyed much success. Like the walled cities of Jericho or of Old Europe, walls have usually been defensive. They aim at keeping out the enemy. But many centuries ago barbarians easily overran the 19-kilometer Aurelian walls around Rome, today crumbling, and that I once walked in one day. These however were small walls, insignificant walls, and even though the walls of Troy resisted for ten years, most walls fell quite easily to hooks and rams and ladders. Instead the 155-kilometer Berlin Wall was intended to keep people in (or was it only that?)—and who can say what could happen in Bush’s Republic?—but anyway the Berlin Wall fell too. Even the 6,700 mile Wall of China has gradually crumbled and become a tourist attraction. And what about the Israeli Wall? For the whole Arab world, for Berliners, for many Europeans, it is forty kilometers of evil. The reality is, walls just don’t work.

The mere idea of a 700-mile wall between the USA and its neighbor Mexico is mind-boggling. The image of a globalized world in which contradictorily walls are built and bridges crumble recalls the feudal system when the lords only left their walled castles escorted by armed guards. The drama of illegal immigration was predicted to become the major issue of the XXI century. Now it is here. And political leaders have decided to look to the distant past for solutions: the Israeli wall and now the Wall of the Gringos are what they come up with.

A declaration of several years ago signed by 28 of 34 nations of the Organization of American States—of course NOT by the United States—expressed “deep concern” for such a “unilateral measure” contrary to the spirit of international understanding. Walls, it said, do not solve the problem of illegal immigration, and it urged the United States to recognize this position. Latin American leaders gathered in a summit in Uruguay condemned the idea of the Wall. Former Mexican President, Vicente Fox, a conservative, defined the idea of a wall on the Mexican border “stupid.” For Chilean President Michelle Bachelet a wall facing Mexico “damages the links of friendship in the hemisphere.”

At this point, as a change of pace: I am adding an exercise I have permitted myself, the translation of a story about walls by Jorge Luis Borges, which however had absolutely nothing to do with the Wall of the Gringos, to whose story I have added a few of my own comments.

The Wall and the Books (La Muralla y los Libros)

By Jorge Luis Borges

(translation from Spanish and comments by Gaither Stewart)

He, whose long wall the wand’ring Tartar bounds

Dunciad, II, 76. (1)

I read, in past days, that the man who ordered the construction of the nearly infinite Wall of China was that First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who likewise ordered the burning of all the books before him. That the two gigantic operations—the five or six hundred leagues of stone to oppose the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is of the past—issued from one person and were in a certain sense his attributes, inexplicably satisfied me and, at the same time, disturbed me. The object of this note is to investigate the reasons for that emotion.

Historically there is no mystery in the two measures. A contemporary of the wars of Hannibal, Shih Huang Ti, King of Ch’in, conquered the Six Kingdoms and eliminated the feudal system; he built the wall because walls were defenses; he burned the books because the opposition invoked them in order to extol former emperors. Burning books and building fortifications is common task to emperors; the only thing singular about Shih Huang Ti was the scale on which he operated. So some Sinologists would have us understand, but I feel that the facts to which I referred are something more than an exaggeration or a hyperbole of trivial inclinations. To enclose an orchard or a garden is common; not to enclose an empire. That the most traditional of races renounced the memory of its past, mythical or true, is no small matter. The Chinese had three thousand years of chronology (in those years, the Yellow Emperor and Chuang Tzu and Confucius and Lao Tzu) when Shih Huang Ti ordered that history began with him.

Shih Huang Ti had banished his mother as a libertine; the orthodox saw only impiety in his severe justice; Shih Huang Ti, perhaps, wanted to erase canonic books because they accused him; Shih Huang Ti, perhaps, wanted to abolish the entire past in order to abolish one memory: the infamy of his mother. (Not unlike another king, in Judea, had all the children killed in order to kill one.) This conjecture is worth considering, but it tells us nothing about the wall, about the second facet of the myth. Shih Huang Ti, according to historians, forbade all mention of the word death and searched for the elixir of immortality and secluded himself in a figurative palace, which had as many rooms as the year has days; the data suggest that the wall in space and the fire in time were magic barriers intended to halt the advance of death. Everything persists in his being, wrote Baruch Spinoza; perhaps the Emperor and his sages believed that immortality was intrinsic and that corruption could not penetrate a closed sphere. Perhaps the Emperor hoped to recreate the beginning of time and called himself The First, in order to be truly the first, and he named himself Huang Ti in order to be in some way Huang Ti, the legendary emperor who invented writing and the compass. The latter, according to the Book of Rites, gave things their true names; equally Shih Huang Ti boasted, in enduring inscriptions, that all things in his empire had the name they merited. He dreamed of founding an immortal dynasty; he ordered that his heirs should be named Second Emperor, Third Emperor, Fourth Emperor, and so on to infinity … I spoke of a magic design; it would also be possible to suppose that constructing a wall and burning the books were not simultaneous acts. This (according to the order we choose) would give us the image of a king who began by destroying and afterwards resigned himself to conserving, or that of a disabused king who destroyed what he defended earlier. Both conjectures are dramatic but lack, as far as I know, in historical basis. Herbert Allen Giles (2) relates that those who concealed books were branded by a red-hot iron and condemned to build the outrageous wall until the day of their death. This information favors or tolerates another interpretation. Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, maybe Shih Huang Ti condemned those who worshipped the past to a work just as vast as the past, as stupid and useless. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and I can do nothing against this love, nor can my executioners, but sometime there will be a man who feels as I do, and he will destroy my wall, as I destroyed the books, and will erase my memory and will be my shadow and my mirror and will not be aware of it. Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in the empire because he knew it was fragile and he destroyed the books because he understood they were sacred books, or rather books that taught that which the entire universe teaches or the consciousness of every man. Maybe the burning of the libraries and the construction of the wall are operations that in a secret way cancel each other.

The tenacious wall that in this moment, and in all moments, projects its system of shadows across lands I will not see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered that the most reverent of nations burn its past; it is likely that the idea itself touches us by, over and above, the conjectures it allows. (Its virtue can be in the opposition to building and destroying, on an enormous scale.) Generalizing the earlier matter, we could infer that all practices have their virtue in themselves and not in some conjectural “content.” This would be in agreement with the thesis of Benedetto Croce (3); as already Pater (4), in 1877, contended that all the arts aspire to the condition of music, which is nothing but form. Music, state of happiness, mythology, faces shaped by time, certain twilights and certain places, try to tell us something, or they told us something that we should not have lost, or want to tell us something; this imminence of a revelation, which does not happen, is, perhaps, the esthetic act.

  1. Dunciad by Alexander Pope in which the poet referred to his many enemies as dunces. This satirical poem of 920 lines, in three books, describes the king of dunces and a nightmare world of universal darkness in Pope’s gigantic lampoon of writers, books and booksellers, attacking those who write for pay. At one point there is a sacrifice bonfire of the books. This sort of literary reference and source is used by Anglophile Borges throughout his work.

  2. Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935), renowned British diplomat and Sinologist.

  3. Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), Italian literary historian, critic, philosopher, wrote: “Art is not the addition of form to content, but expression, which does not mean communication but is a spiritual fact, and ethics is conceived as the expression of the universal will, of the spirit.”

  4. Walter Pater (1839-94), English writer, essayist, aesthete and art historian, famous precisely because his life is so shrouded in mystery, whom Henry James called “the mask without the face” and the kind of literary source Borges plants in his strange tales. Here Borges quotes Pater that “all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” I found on line this anecdote which is revealing of the nature of Pater, and thus of one side of Borges:

In 1894, the last year of his life, Pater was invited to meet Mallarmé, who was then lecturing at Oxford. Mallarmé taught English in a lycée; Pater’s French was excellent; but the two connoisseurs of intimation apparently thought it too vulgar actually to speak. According to one account, they “regarded each other in silence, and were satisfied.”

Translator’s note: This typical Borges interpretative chronicle/ historical reflection (neither short story nor essay!) is included in Antología Personal (Personal Anthology), the version I have translated here, the first edition of which was published by Editorial Sur in 1961 and for which Borges wrote in the Prologue that his “preferences dictated this book.” It appeared again in English in Everything and Nothing, New Directions, 1999. I chose to translate this tale/account because it is shorter and, perhaps, less well-known than others; secondly because it is typical of Borges’ works in which he playfully drops unfamiliar names and references in his veiled recounting of people and place and times, which only at first appear obscure or meaningless; and thirdly because of the writer’s prologue to the volume.

As fate would have it and in Borges style, I saw in a May issue of the best of the “NY Times in Italian,” the article “Walls Raised Against the Enemy, A Long History,” which cites the first such wall as Shih Huang Ti’s Wall of China, an article intended to demonstrate that they never work, not in Berlin nor in Israel nor in Baghdad. Nor will it work on the US-Mexican border, I would add.

Tracing the references and my close reading of the Prologue is to elucidate to a limited degree the Borgesian world. If you try to pursue diligently all Borges’ literary pointers you have to be prepared to enter an infinite labyrinth in which one thing leads to another and then another, inexorably and without end, so that you do need the proverbial ball of string to find your way out. Though with contemporary web search engines this labyrinth is only a few clicks away, while I was clicking and longing to exit I imagined Borges instead in one of his libraries, finding, tracing and investigating such sources of inspiration by following his own instincts, pulling down tome after tome from the labyrinthine spaces filled with semi-illuminated shelves that he must have loved and hated.

Toward the end of this exercise, once the translation was finished and the names pinpointed, I returned to his Prologue to the book in which he refers to Benedetto Croce as he does in “The Wall and the Books.” Borges: “Croce opined that art is expression; from this exigency, or from the deformation of this exigency, derives the worst literature of our times…. I at times have also searched for expression; now I know that my gods no longer concede me anything but allusion or account.”

Creative writers can well understand him. On a similar tack Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) says that, “every work of art is a game played out at the worktable. Nothing is more harmful to creativity than the passion of inspiration. It’s the fable of bad romantics that fascinates bad poets and bad narrators. Art is a serious matter. Manzoni and Flaubert, Balzac and Stendhal wrote at the worktable. That means to construct, like an architect plans a building. Yet we prefer to believe that a novelist invents because he has a genius whispering into his ear.”

(Well, so much for walls, even if I have digressed from the subject, I think it is clear that to me walls do not sound like a good idea at all).

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