• Moravia and Borges

    I came across, in a Janet Malcolm essay [1], this quote from a short story of Alberto Moravia’s called “The Wardrobe:”

    Since the door was only half closed, I got a jumbled view of my mother and father on the bed, one on top of the other. Mortified, hurt, horror-struck, I had the hateful sensation of having placed myself blindly and completely in unworthy hands. Instinctively and without effort, I divided myself, so to speak, into two persons, of whom one, the real, the genuine one, continued on her own account, while the other, a successful imitation of the first, was delegated to have relations with the world. My first self remains at a distance, impassive, ironical, and watching.

    The rest of the story, which you can find in an out of print collection [2] called Bought and Sold (originally Il Paradiso, p. 1970) follows this conceit — the psychic battle between the woman’s false and real self.

    The passage immediately called to mind Jorge Luis Borges’ “Borges y Yo” [Borges and I].

    The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

    Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

    I do not know which of us has written this page.

    Moravia’s version genders and puts into social relation Borges’ sexless authorial contest. “The Wardrobe”‘s female narrator is first split during a moment of Oedipal shock, her false and real selves compete for her husband’s affections. Moravia’s takes what for Borges’ is only exaggeration (“a hostile relationship”) and runs with it.

    Was Moravia inspired by Borges, who had just risen to international acclaim in the 60s when Moravia was writing? So far I’ve found no mention of this, though it seems likely.

    [1] “A Girl of the Zeitgeist.” In an irony you can’t make up, Malcolm mentions this quote itself in the context of plagiarism: the artist Louise Lawler reproduces “The Wardrobe” as her own, a modernist commentary on the inherently imitative nature of artistic creativity . (Malcolm’s contempt for Lawler’s feminist art of citation and derivation is very fun to read.)

    [2] Astounding that a story collection this good and this popular in the 70s has fallen into obscurity in America. Given its sexually self-annihilating and self-deceiving heroines, likely the victim of contemporary academic prudishness. Moravia today is barely taught; Borges and Nabokov, who dealt with Moravia’s themes in more decorporealized, intellectualized fashion, are often taught.

  • On liberal arts and flourishing

    I wrote this a few years ago as part of my application to my current program, the College Fellows at UVA. My thoughts have since evolved (…or devolved into something less optimistic about the future of academia, tbh), but remain faithful to the general spirit.

    At the beginning of the new decade, an algorithmically generated link to an article appeared in my browser. It touted an architect’s “radical vision” for a modern open office floor plan. This glassy new workplace, dubbed the “Eudaimonia machine,” was divided into strict zones to maximize productivity, even including a plunge in a shower space to shepherd employees into “deep work” zones. Its name, the architect claimed, referred to Aristotle’s concept of “the epitome of human capability.” The word eudaimonia was familiar to me. I had first encountered it as a freshman in a year-long liberal arts sequence in foundational texts. But this architecture of mechanistic efficiency — designed to reduce socialization and enhance productivity– resembled less Aristotle’s “human flourishing” than a concept I had learned of later: Agamben’s posthumanist vision of bare life, as theorized through the Nazi gas chambers.  

    Projects like the “Eudaimonia machine” expose the difference between a surface literacy of glib reference and a true aesthetic literacy grounded in historical, ethical, and formal understanding. In the 21st century, the former dominates a ceaseless cultural sphere oversaturated by the rapid-fire discourses of social media. Digital streaming services, each owned by their own corporate platform, make it possible to exist in a cultural loop of personalized reference, free of the tensions inherent to encountering another place, time, and sensibility. Such trends may make ideals like historicity and rigor seem impossibly out of date. But I would argue that these ideals, as instituted through a comprehensive liberal arts education, are more necessary than ever. As mass culture becomes increasingly atomized, education must step in to shape a coherent, comprehensive body of shared knowledge. 

    My area of research specialization, premodern China, had its own institution adjacent to a liberal arts education: a meritocratic imperial bureaucracy rooted in comprehensive learning. By reading and being morally cultivated by a classical body of knowledge, one could be raised to the civil service elite, who shared a language to articulate the conditions of elite governance. Today, in the American university, the vestigial structures of a similar elite meritocracy persist– the holdover from a time where an education promised civil subject-formation– but without any faith of purpose to guide them. Anxious platitudes of self-discovery hide the hollowness of increasingly specialized programs, which mistake intellectual freedom for the false freedom of consumer choice. This veneer of caring pluralism masks a loss of faith in the ability of an integrated scholarly pursuit to speak to the world, and have the world speak back in turn. 

    When I think back to my own liberal arts experience, in which eighteen-year-olds huddled over a single Sappho verse, I consider a different kind of freedom– a freedom from the conditions of the present, the loss of oneself in the shared project of interpreting ancient voices. Only a liberal arts education can offer a common language rooted in the deep past that can guide, inform, and articulate the conditions of the present.