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A MUSEUM OF SECRET AFFINITIES.

From Atlas, a collection of writings by Jorge Luis Borges, published by E. P. Dutton. Translated by Anthony Kerrigan.

Hotel Esja, Reykjavik--The most modest things in life are often a kind of boon. I had just arrived at the hotel. I was, as always, in the middle of that clear haze visible to the eyes of the blind, and I set about exploring the undefined room which had been assigned me. Feeling my way along the walls, which were rather uneven, and circling the furniture, I discovered a large round column. It was so wide I could scarcely encompass it and had trouble getting my hands to meet behind it. I knew at once it was white. Firm and massive it rose toward the ceiling. For some seconds I experienced the curious happiness one derives from a thing that is almost an archetype. I know that at that moment I recovered the elemental joy I first felt when the pure forms of Euclidean geometry--the cylinder, the cube, the sphere, the pyramid--were revealed to me.

Ars Magna--I am standing on the corner of Raymundo Lulio Street in Mallorca.

Emerson said that language is fossil poetry. As confirmation of this dictum, we need only remember that all abstract words are, in effect, metaphors, including the word metaphor, which in Greek means "transfer."

The thirteenth century, which professed the cult of Scripture--that is, of a set of words selected and approved by the Spirit--could not think in a metaphorical manner. A man of genius, Raymundo Lulio (Llull), who had attributed several definite predicates to God (goodness, greatness, eternity, power, wisdom, will, virtue, and glory), conceived a sort of machine-for-thinking made up of concentric circles in wood covered with symbols of the divine predicates. This mechanism, set in motion by the systematic investigator, would yield an indefinite and almost infinite number of concepts of a theological order. He did the same as regards the faculties of the soul and the qualities of everything in the world. As was to be expected, all these combinatory mechanisms served no purpose whatsoever.

Centuries later, Jonathan Swift mocked Llull in Gulliver's Travels. Leibniz considered the matter but abstained, naturally, from reconstructing the method.

The experimental science prophesied by Francis Bacon has now given us cybernetics, which has allowed man to set foot on the moon and whose computers are--if the phrase is acceptable--belated sisters of Llull's ambitious circles.

Mauthner observes that a dictionary of rhymes is also a machine-for-thinking.

On Salvation by Deeds--One autumn, one of the autumns of time, the Shinto divinities gathered, not for the first time, at Izumo. They are said to have numbered eight million. Being a shy man, I would have felt a bit lost among so many. In any case, it is not convenient to deal in inconceivable numbers. Let us say there were eight, since eight is a good omen in these islands.

They were downcast, but did not show it: the visages of divinities are undecipherable kanji. They seated themselves in a circle on the green crest of a hill. They had been observing mankind from their firmament or from a stone or from a snowflake.

One of the divinities spoke:
   Many days, or centuries, ago, we gathered here to create Japan and the
   world. The fishes, the seas, the seven colors of the rainbow, the
   generations of plants and animals have all worked out well. So that men
   should not be burdened with too many things, we gave them succession,
   issue, the plural day and the singular night. We also bestowed on them the
   gift of experimenting with certain variations. The bee continues repeating
   beehives. But man has imagined devices: the plow, the key, the
   kaleidoscope. He has also imagined the sword and the art of war. He has
   just imagined an invisible weapon which could put an end to history. Before
   this senseless deed is done, let us wipe out men.


They remained pensive. Without haste another divinity spoke:
   It's true. They have thought up that atrocity, but there is also this
   something quite different, which fits in the space encompassed by seventeen
   syllables.


The divinity intoned them. They were in an unknown language, and I could not understand them. The leading divinity delivered a judgment:
   Let men survive.


Thus, because of a haiku, the human race was saved.
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Title Annotation:excerpt from Atlas
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Words:721
Previous Article:A WRITER'S GIFT.
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