Tag Archives: Borges

A Moment in Eternity: Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel

Octavio Paz says calls The Invention of Morel, “without exaggeration… a perfect novel.” According to Borges, “to classify [it] as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” It has influenced creations as diverse as the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the influential French film Last Year at Marienbad, and the television series Lost. Wikipedia says (albeit, without citation) that “many consider it… to be one of the best pieces of fantastic fiction.” And if that isn’t enough to pique one’s interest, the principal character, Morel, is  named after H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau, and the main female character is called Faustine, which I am convinced is a play on Faust – and moreover, these two names are entirely appropriate.

First things first – The Invention of Morel is entirely resistant to genre classifications. Perhaps the safest bet is to call it a work of speculative fiction, but I don’t think that label does it justice. In its willingness to play with and twist our conceptions of existence and reality, it anticipates some of the best works of Philip K. Dick (notably, Ubik which, in turn, was subject to a rip-off by Inception), but has greater philosophical depth than Dick; its musings on death, on immortality, on love, loss and regret, on the impossibility of desire, and on the intertwined nature of reality, time and dreams (think of Borges’ The Circular Ruins), and on the connections between all of these, are moving and profoundly beautiful; and the denouement is both melancholy and haunting, worthy of the great tragedies.

The second thing is that it is virtually impossible to write a review of this short, 90-page novella, because everything turns upon a single premise that, if revealed, would spoil the story, but without which nothing would make any kind of sense. So I’ll commence with an outline of the story, and then, following a Spolier alert, proceed to discuss the main themes. For me, personally, reading the book a second time, even knowing exactly what was going to happen, didn’t take away from the experience. But for some, it might, and so I’ll be careful not to give away too much. 

The story is told from the point of view of a fugitive who, fleeing from the law, has arrived upon a remote and inaccessible island, where he determines to live out the rest of his life. This plan is thrown into serious jeopardy when, for no apparent reason, a group of people suddenly arrive upon the island, and the fugitive has to hide form them. Soon, however, he finds himself falling in love with the pensive and enigmatic Faustine, whom he sees every evening, watching the sunset from a rock (there are some truly brilliant observations about the psychology of love scattered throughout the novel – it’s worth reading for that alone). The fugitive’s attempts to attract her attention fail utterly; she refuses to acknowledge his existence – she even seems blindly oblivious to it. Subsequently, he sees a man named Morel come up to speak to her, at times in an intimate manner, and yet at other times distantly and formally – so that it is impossible to tell whether they are, or have been, lovers. The fugitive feels an intense jealousy – and yet Morel refuses to take any notice of him either, even when they nearly come face to face.

At this point, other strange things begin to happen. The fugitive notices that the conversations between Morel and Faustine are repeated, word for word, after the interval of a week. People complain of feeling cold even when the climate is excessively hot. They dance in a storm and swim in a pool that is full of rotten leaves and decaying fish. And one day, two suns and two moons appear simultaneously in the sky.

** HERE THERE BE SPOILERS **

The fugitive finds, eventually, that the island belongs to Morel, who is a scientist. Morel has discovered a method of recording that captures not only the visual (as in the case of photographs), or the auditory (radio), but reproduces, instead, all of sensorial parts of the individual (the word “all” is ambiguous, and the story does not resolve the ambiguity). As Morel says:

When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges…When Madeleine existed for the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, Madeleine herself was actually there.”

The price, however, is that the process of recording kills the subject. Morel himself is in love with Faustine, but (for reasons never explained entirely) she cannot be his. So Morel decides to bring a group of his closest friends to his island, where he has set up his elaborate equipment, and without informing them, record the entire week that they spend upon the island. The consequence is that physically, they all die (their bodies are found in the ship that is taking them back from the island), but in the recording, they live on. And since the equipment runs upon a perpetually renewable source of kinetic energy generated from the sun, the wind and the tides, the one week is like a song on an infinite loop: it repeats itself forever, the same week, beginning to end. And this explains all the strange occurrences – the apparent dancing in the storm and the swimming in a putrid pool, and the two suns and two moons in the sky – it is the world of the recording and the “real” world rubbing shoulders. In essence, you have two “times” existing side-by-side: linear, “ordinary” time, to which the narrator is subject; and circular time, in which the rest of the people, including Morel and Faustine, live forever.

Morel kills his friends, but gives them in return an eternity with each other, and himself an eternity with the woman he loves. The week will repeat itself forever, but obviously those who live in the projection will have no memory of it; at the end of each cycle, they will begin again as though the world was beginning again. They are trapped in endless repetition – but they do not know itand so, for them, every moment is new. As Morel says:

Even if we left tomorrow, we would be here eternally, repeating consecutively the moments of this week, powerless to escape from the consciousness that we had in each one of them – the thoughts and feelings that the machine captured. We will be able to live a life that is always new, because in each moment of the projection we shall have no memories other than those we had in the corresponding moment of the eternal record, and because the future, left behind many times, will maintain its attributes forever.

On learning, then, that Faustine is actually nothing more than a projection, a recording, a phantom, the fugitive is distraught. But then, he discovers his solution. Finding out how the machines work, he restarts the process, and places himself in the recording – walking just ahead of Faustine, as though they are lovers and she is following him, saying something to her just before she speaks, making it seem as though she is replying to him – and all the while, through a conscious effort of will, bringing himself to believe that this is real, that Faustine is real, that they really are lovers. And so, at the end of it, the fugitive has sentenced himself to death, but he too will live on forever in that one week upon the island, with Faustine. And as he feels himself beginning to die, as he senses his body decaying, the fugitive’s last wish is a prayer to those who follow in the footsteps of Morel, and invent an even more perfect machine, to merge his and Faustine’s consciousness. “It would be an act of piety.”

In a previous post, I discussed immortality in the context of the Faustian pact. I discussed how there is a paradox in the Faust wishing for a moment that would last for eternity; simply because it is the momentariness of the moment that makes us wish that it would last forever. If it really did last forever, or even for very long, it would simply lose everything that makes it what it is. Bernard Williams calls this the “tedium of immortality“, and Janecek’s opera, The Makropoulos Affair, is a brilliant exploration of the theme. Casares accepts the paradox, and resolves it: in The Invention of Morel, the moment (or, to be more precise, the week) does last for eternity, but the word “lasting” is not entirely accurate. By repeating itself continuously, yet without any consciousness on the part of the subjects that there is any such repetition, Morel, Faustine and the fugitive can truly live in the moment for eternity“. And curiously enough, my own response to this was a mingled awe and horror. Would I, given the choice, take Morel’s solution, the solution that the fugitive later adopts as his own? I simply do not know. It seems ideal, it seems perfect and yet, at the same time, it seems utterly horrifying. That, I feel, is where the great success of this novel lies. Casares manages to convey to us the sheer vastness, the magnitude of what immortality, in its best imaginable form, could be like, and the thought, almost beyond the ken of comprehension, is truly frightening.

Immortality is not the only complex theme that Casares deals with. Love is ever-present. Perhaps the spirit of the novel is summed up by one of the characters quoting the first two lines of Verlaine’s famous poem:

Âme, te souvient-il au fond du paradis
De la gare d’Auteuil et des trains de jadis…

What is it that we really love, when we fall in love? Is it, as Tolkien, would say, “a shadow and a thought“? Casares certainly seems to think so. The fugitive falls in love with a phantom. Morel creates a phantom to spend an eternity with. But if we’re pressed to answer what exactly makes this phantom any less real than a human being, or the experience poorer, paler, more attenuated – barring the obvious – there is nothing that we can say. Consider the point made by this review of the book:

Yet Morel’s projections belie his words. The characters generated by Morel’s invention are hollow creations, lacking any sort of totality; and there is no proof to support Morel’s claim that his machine will capture the soul, since his existing creations are only the sum of their sensorial parts. What the machine does offer, however, is a presentation of reality that is fixed and unchanging, not dependent upon the shifting viewpoint of the subjective self.

But what is the soul, then, if the sum of the “sensorial parts” is present? Do we even need someone’s soul, if we have the rest, and if we have it like this – “a fixed and unchanging presentation of reality“?

The fugitive sums up the paradox here:

To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares; to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).

And yet, by the end of it, he changes his mind completely:

He [Morel] loved the inaccessible Faustine. That is why he killed her, killed himself and all his friends, and invented immortality! Faustine’s beauty deserves that madness, that tribute, that crime. When I denied that, I was too jealous or too stubborn to admit that I loved her. And now I see Morel’s act as something sublime.

Here, love and immortality become intertwined. In a sense, it is not only a solution to the Faustian pact, but also to the Tithonus problem – Faustine has been given Tithonus’ gift of immortality without the curse of ever growing old. Because murder is the only way to achieve that, Morel’s act remains “a crime” – and yet, is something “sublime“.

But the price, of course, is that Morel and the fugitive are both condemned to love a phantom, a phantom who is herself unaware of the gift that she has been given. As the fugitive himself concedes, by his death he achieves the “eternal” and “seraphic” contemplation of Faustine. Is that better than nothing? Perhaps. Is that ideal? Not by a long shot.

And I think that the final point that Casares makes is that it is simply impossible to, in a sense, have it all: if you were aware of the fact that the week you’re living in is going to repeat itself eternally, than even the most intense joy would be tempered by a kind of horror; and on the contrary, if, like Faustine, you didn’t know, then your thoughts and your feelings remain as they ever were; is immortality any good if you don’t know that you are immortal? 

I can’t say.

** HERE END SPOILERS ** 

Part-Borges, part-Kafka, part-Philip K. Dick; lyrical, beautiful and haunting; this is the kind of book you never, ever forget.

Bioy’s Britannica Online Page: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/66263/Adolfo-Bioy-Casares

His Wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolfo_Bioy_Casares

The Invention of Morel’s wiki page (with spoilers): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invention_of_Morel

A spoiler-free review: http://www.nthposition.com/theinvention.php

A spoiler-laden review: http://www.waggish.org/2003/the-invention-of-morel-adolfo-bioy-casares/

Another spoiler-laden review (right from the go): http://www.lisaswanstrom.net/fantasticpastresponses.html

The opening: http://anagrammatically.com/2011/09/18/the-invention-of-morel/

A note on the translation: http://anagrammatically.com/2011/09/18/the-invention-of-morel-redacted/

Verlaine’s poem: http://lyricstranslate.com/en/ame-te-souvient-il-dear-soul-do-you-recall.html

Tithonus: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/tithonus/

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Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Latin American Fiction, Speculative Fiction, The Invention of Morel (Casares)

Kundera, Borges and representation

I would suggest that in his otherwise brilliant books of essays, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera makes one serious error of omission. Both these books deal with the history and evolution of the European novel. I will briefly summarise his argument, before explaining my one reservation, and then discussing a very interesting issue about the nature of art, that is thrown up by his analysis.

For Kundera, the history of the novel can be divided like two halves of a football game that is presently in extra-time. The analogy is meant to highlight three clear eras, separated by clean breaks. The history commences with Rabelais and Cervantes in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first “break” occurs towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th. And the second, rather more ambiguous dividing line is located somewhere in the early-mid twentieth century.

The first era, of which the stand-out examples are Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, is characterised by a disconnect between the world of the novel and the world of reality. Kundera’s example is the amount of times Sancho Panza has his teeth knocked in. He would need four or five pairs of jaws to compensate for that, if he were a real person. Of course, you can replace this example by many similar ones. The episode of the thawing of the frozen words in Gargantua is one that I’ve never forgotten, for instance. In other words, it is not the novelist’s task, it is not the novel’s task, to conform to the laws of physics, the laws of mechanics, and various other laws – or at least, principles, to use a less rigid term – that govern human behaviour.

The second era, of which Kundera quotes Balzac as the paragon, is precisely the opposite, in that the novelist is expected and required to accurately represent the real world. His success is measured by how well he can do that. I haven’t read Balzac, but to my mind, the following two examples fit the bill: Dickens’ painstaking depiction of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and Victor Hugo’s sixty pages describing the Parisian sewers to the last detail in Les Miserables (you can think of Hugo’s descriptions in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well). This isn’t restricted to the physical world – characters must behave, act, talk in the way you would expect them to, if they were real people (hence, the idea of the “psychological novel”, of which the great Russians are undisputed masters).

So there, in essence, you have two radically opposed views about the novel. One that couldn’t care two hoots for the world, and the other that insists the novel is measured by how precisely it can represent the world.

“Extra time”, for Kundera, is that which has been initiated by the likes of James Joyce and Kafka in the 21st century, and carried on by the magical realists (he mentions Carlos Fuentes, and I’m quite sure he mentions Gabriel Garcia Marquez at one point). Their work rejects the idea of the novel-as-representation, and hearkens back to the freewheeling fiction of Rabelais and Cervantes. A quick recollection of Ulysses, or the bizarre, winding ways of The Trial and The Castle will illustrate the point that Kundera is making. You could never imagine any of that happening in real life.

Kundera pulls out all the stops. His is a dazzling way of arguing, his prose is (ironically enough) lyrical, and of course, he is controversial – especially in his suggestions about how to read Kafka.

But here is the serious problem: Kundera doesn’t even mention the person who, for me, is the single, most spectacular practitioner in the “extra-time era” of the “extra-time novel”: Jorge Luis Borges. It is surprising, for the magical realists, especially Marquez, have often acknowledged their debt to Borges. Borges’ short stories demonstrate exactly what Kundera is talking about. Think of The Garden of Forking Paths. Think of how it takes our conception of time, and twists it around like a rope, disorienting us entirely; think of The Library of Babel, and its utterly… illogical premise; or The Circular Ruins, and the manner in which it seamlessly blends reality and dream. You couldn’t have a more vehement rejection of the representation philosophy, a more fervent affirmation of the Quixote in us. And so, Kundera’s omission is very surprising.

It’s interesting also to note that Borges in fact makes a very similar point about the novel in his preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. The Invention of Morel is a brilliant, an absolutely mind-blowing short-novel that has never received the credit it deserves; it is also a classically Borgesian novel, taking our most basic conceptions of reality, like time and space, and making us view them through a glass, darkly. Borges, writing the preface to it, makes a very Kundera-esque distinction between “the psychological novel” and “the adventure novel”, and then, very much like Kundera again, makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies lie with the latter.

That said, I think it’s fascinating to note that this debate is not in any sense restricted to the novel. You find it in ancient greek tragedy. For instance, Aristotle quotes Sophocles as saying that “he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides they are.” There is no doubt that Sophoclean characters (think of Oedipus, of Antigone, even Creon) are essentially larger-than-life, depicting human strengths and weaknesses on a Homeric-heroic scale; while Euripides’ characters are human, all too human. And this dichotomy was recognised and emphasised; it is emphasised by Aristophanes in The Frogs: the contest in the underworld between Aeschylus and Euripides for the crown of the greatest tragedian is conducted around the central question of whether Aeschylus’ epic portrayal or Euripides’ practical one constitutes better tragedy; it is certainly emphasized by Schlegel, when he savagely criticises Euripides’ art in his Lectures on the history of European drama. And then after Aristophanes the comedian, another Aristophanes, the Byzantine historian, would praise the playwright Menander in the following words: “O life and Menander! Which of you imitated the other?” Perfect imitation, worthy of supreme praise – to the extent that it was impossible to distinguish what was art and what, life.

This idea of the relationship between life and art is dealt with, I think, with surpassing and astounding brilliance by Oscar Wilde, in his four magnificent essays on the nature of art. Wilde rejects entirely the idea that art must imitate life, and instead turns it around entirely: life ought to imitate art! At first blush, this sounds like an absurd thesis. But is it, really?

Consider the beautiful ending of Victor Hugo’s poem, Boaz Endormi:

What summer reaper out of times unknown,
In leaving her so carelessly had thrown
That golden sickle in the field of stars?

This is a description of the moon. And Wilde’s point is that if we read this poem, and are affected by it in the way that good poetry affects us, when next we look upon the moon, we will see it differently from the way in which we’ve been seeing it before: we too will see it as a golden sickle in a field of stars. In other words, our world takes its colour, its definition, its characteristics from our art. We look at our world through the lens of our art. Every time that, for instance, that you look at something beautiful, and a metaphor springs unbidden into your mind, it is the world imitating art. “The moon was a ghostly galleon…” – you read that, and how many times do you look up into a stormy, cloudy night, and catch yourself thinking about ships in storm-tossed seas?

I hope to do more justice to Wilde’s argument by examining it in a separate post. But I’d also like to add here that this isn’t even restricted to literature. It pervades the arts. There was a time when it was believed that the best kind of painting was one that most accurately depicted reality. Escher and Dali, to name just two great painters, would take serious issue with that. And then again, interestingly, I recently read that one of the things the impressionists were praised for was how they managed to capture light and movement better than those before them; but also about how a major feature of their art was letting the viewer complete the scene with his imagination. An interesting duality.

I suppose the basic idea is, again, that it’s important to always keep questioning the premises and presuppositions with which we approach a work of art, no matter what type it is – and that includes our presuppositions of what is a work of art – the central and vexed question of identity. I have no categorical views on the representation debate either way, although with the likes of Kundera and Wilde as its spokesmen, I am inclined to cast my lot in with the practitioners of extra-time. But the debate itself, I think, and what it reveals about us and our art, is far more fascinating than whatever conclusion or resolution we arrive at.

Hugo’s Booz Endormi: http://www.textetc.com/exhibits/et-hugo-1.html

The wiki page for The Invention of Morel, by far one of the best books I have ever read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invention_of_Morel

Links to some classic Borges stories:

The Garden of Forking Paths: http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/borges-garden.html

The Library of Babel: http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/library_of_babel.html

The Circular Ruins: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jatill/175/CircularRuins.htm

Oscar Wilde’s essays:

The Critic as Artist: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1305/

The Truth of Masks: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1310/

The Decay of Lying: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1307/

The Rise of Historical Criticism: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/2309/

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Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, J.L. Borges, Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera, Modernism, Oscar Wilde