Borges’s funes the memorious
By Richard Marshall.
Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, MIT, 2012.
The difficulty of an idea, even one of the imagination, may be relativised to the thinker’s time. Borges was fascinated by time and infinity. But Georg Cantor solved Zeno’s paradoxes of infinity before most of Borges work had even been started. Bizarre metaphysical notions about the impossibility of time and paradoxes therein, as set out by McTaggart et al, were being swept away too. The strange Hegelianism of Borges, whereby the universe was a closely knit unity, ‘… like a jelly in the fact that, if you touched any one part of it, the whole quivered,’ as Russell put it, was being freshly replaced even as Borges wrote. What replaced it was the idea of ‘the universe as a pile of buckshot.’ Philosophy was entering the early analytic phase, and the synoptic visions that engaged Borges were being submerged by a new set of concerns and solutions. Even the most fundamental issues were being reformulated. Where the question ‘who am I?’ had once provoked a keening, existential and metaphysical conundrum where the concerns of philosophers and theologians met with the great imaginative writers, new language philosophers leapt away to work in quite a different universe. So, for example, they might identify an embedded grammatical hunger for an object term in sentences and note that dummy pronouns are used in many a sentence to appease this hunger. The ‘it’ in ‘Inspector Columbo, though no one knew it except Wim Wenders, was an angel’ is such a dummy word. And so in addressing the deep question of existential identity, these philosophers might rather turn to the personal pronoun ‘I’ and suggest that ‘I’ is itself merely another dummy term resulting from this linguistic hunger. The great contemporary philosopher of paradox and blindspots Roy Sorensen argues that ‘I’ identifies the frame of identity, comparing it to the vanishing point in perspective. The vanishing point is the inner limit, as the frame is the outer limit. The vanishing point is not actually part of the picture. Much of Borges’s work captures his sense that there is a strange universe that has disappeared because its mysteries have been dispelled or no longer enchant. Borges read prodigiously of a submerging world and writes to memorialise a coming silence.
What comes after literature and metaphysics have gone? Borges considers this annihilating proposition. Borges writes to remember and memorialise. Its distraction is serious and consumes everything he does and everything he becomes. It branches and forks. Borges wriggles between metaphysics and literature trying to grasp an intolerably lucid acknowledgment of it sinking below the horizon forever. He is interested in everything that might help solve what becomes, over the course of his life, an immense and infinite riddle. He is attracted to the paradoxical weight of the solution’s hellish absence. In literature he is kept awake by Kafka’s terrifying warning that any solution is merely another illusion, that even when you feel the answer lies in your grasp it will turn out to be nothing more than a new manifestation of the original perplexity. Kafka imagined this as a knot in a whip, the same whip that reappears unwillingly in Beckett’s Godot. His fate is to know that what is real to us is more impoverished than the world. His concern lies with the general, the concept, the conjectural archetypical and memory. He writes about different eternities. When he writes about metaphysics he is restless and sometimes tiresome, but when hitched to authors and stories, dazzling. He thinks the horror of nightmares is gradual. Crime is a relief from a growing sense of panic and evil. He thinks Conrad the last novelist interested in both technique and the fate of his characters. He thinks Sherlock Holmes more intelligent than Conan Doyle and Zarathustra less intelligent than Nietzsche. He credits Aldous Huxley with thinking that time is a mortal wound. Tagore is in love with vagueness. He once imagined a detective story with such an obvious solution that the suspicion that it was false would be unrelievable. In a review of a hapless novel he looks for a secret plot but it is beyond his ingenuity to find one.
In Dante he inaugurates a serene labyrinth of various and felicitous traits. These are signs of integrity and plenitude. There is the river of forgetting in Dante’s hell, so that ‘ the waters of Lethe connects Hell’s lowest depths to the base of mount Purgatory, which is an island and has a door.’ There is a sense of growing agitation and fear in Borges as he notes Francesco da Buti taking up the words of Dante: ‘ The subject of this poem is, literally, the state of souls once separated from their bodies and, morally, the rewards or pains that man attains by the exercise of his free will.’ He is intrigued that Dante’s reactions contrast with God’s; in particular, in the cases of Filippo Argenti and Judas. RS Stevenson had a nightmare in childhood that he was pursued by a hue of brown. Chesterton imagined a tree that was more or less a tree and elsewhere ‘a tower whose very shape was wicked.’ Poe writes of a ship that grows like the living body of a sailor. Melville shapes the uncanny out of the dread and silence of the whiteness of the whale. These are memories of dread and condition his modernity.
A writer is in hell when her reader forgets her. This is the problem of Beatrice. Beatrice existed infinitely for Dante but he hardly if at all for her. Here’s the nub for Borges and his prodigious minimalism : we should stop thinking a ten minute conversation with Roberto Bolano would reveal to us the true meaning of 2666. And never doubt that our greatest love hardly acknowledges us. Andrew Gallix’s strange and Roman miniature is probably a Florentine exile; his ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Matter’ engulfs this type of inutterable despair. Yet still, whatever is imagined is there. If this is likened to a journey then it ends in a catastrophe which is not destiny but its secret instruction. Borges hints at this all along; he notes that metaphor is a metaphor and recognises the threat of its infinite recursion. Mirrors reflecting mirrors, infinity is a mirror reflecting a mirror. He samples examples. Byron writes: ‘She walks in beauty, like the night’ where he explains, ‘ To accept this line , the reader must imagine a tall, dark woman who walks like the Night, which in turn, is a tall dark woman , and so on to infinity.’ Browning writes, ‘ O lyric Love, half angel and half bird…’ and, noting that an angel is already half bird, what is written is again an interminable proposal.
Intolerable precision and detail destroys us. Instead we require reality and a reign of silence. This may well be the latest sleight of hand of the classical. This is a question of confidence and sometimes spontaneity. At other times it is about imagining the complexities of another world. At times beyond these, it is about inventing circumstances. Henry James is the master of this third silence where characters are justifications of circumstances and nothing else. The ambiguities, omissions and superficialities are deliberate in James. There is no psychology in his novels, rather the strangest fabrications of circumstances rendered as a circle in hell. Oddly, contemporary bad-ass writer Stewart Home works this particular circle of modern originality. What is delicious in this is the state of ‘confusion of spirit and matter’, similar to that noticed by Dr Johnson with Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ Milton there plays off the incongruity of its metaphorical and material weight: ‘what surmounts the reach/Of human sense, I shall delineate so,/By likening spiritual to corporal forms,/As may express them best’ he writes, and so claims metaphorical complexity as his universe. But then: ‘though what if Earth/Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein/ Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?’ and in so doing discredits the first idea, or qualifies it, as Arnold Stein once noted.
In Milton, instructively, is a book of an awesome, miraculously sublime silence, that of Hell and Satan. His silence is about the war with Heaven, the questions he raises in our minds about it. Stein writes: ‘His silence is no doubt a commentary; so complete a fact requires no mention, once the forensic necessity has been removed, but we cannot know this at the time.’ But another important silence is that of Cordelia. Ted Hughes writes: ‘ Cordelia’s ‘Nothing’ is a reply to Lear’s “What can you say about your love for me, using the language of your sisters?’ Here the language of the evil sisters can’t be the shared universe of love and so a generalised language becomes a curse. This is the tremendous unqualified silence that goes further than just being a philosophical impasse and is more ‘a mystical apprehension’ that Shakespeare’s Sonnets revolve around. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/ Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;/ If snow be white, why then, her breasts are dun;/ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.’ (Sonnet 130) and Hughes feels an unease with metaphor, with anything that isn’t the detail, the thing in itself in life, that locks up Shakespeare. The necessity of generalisation and abstraction is the condition of the profound silence of Cordelia. Yet the cursed necessity is what Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’ articulates.
What can express the truth but the living complexity of the actual? ‘Drama gave him the language of this silence.’ The ‘foul body of the infected world’ of ‘As You Like It’ is language’s false conceits and dissembling proportions. Truth here is the ineffable. These silences of Cordelia and of Satan are a species of silence and Borges seemed to intuit that for a while at least, but perhaps forever, it was a type of silence that we may have lost the capacity to hear.
If Borges is alert to creation it is perhaps the false creator of Gnosticism, the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus, or its parody, a most negative theology whereby Creation and Fall are simultaneous. We recall Hamm, of Beckett’s Shakesperean ‘Endgame’, witnesses the primal act between his parents and a greater outrage against Noah. Harold Bloom notes this and links it with Borges in ‘Death and the Compass’. ‘Borges… remarks that… to the Gnostics, mirrors and fathers were alike abominable, because they multiply the numbers of men. That is very much the Macbeth-like stance of Hamm, who dreads the surviving boy seen outside the window as a “potential procreator.” Beckett thought the play ‘… difficult and elliptic, mostly depending on the powers of the text to claw, more inhuman than Godot.’ Freud saw anxiety as a perception of the possibility of anxiety, which again mobilises the infinite series so essential to mirror-man Borges. His oeuvre is a single line from Hamlet: ‘ O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.’
If Borges feared that we would never hear the silence of Cordelia nor that of Milton’s Satan the contemporary tectonic shift in culture, philosophy and science has enabled literature to recalibrate itself. No longer do we have to take on trust assertions about the death of the author or the novel. Rehabilitated metaphysics, adjustied science and its worlds may mean that Cordelia can once more be heard. And still the author’s unrequited love for Beatrice sears. Alongside precision and detail both the symmetrical and schematic are imagined debilitating, false and trite (imagine). Loose ends, irregularity and gaps relieve us of the suspicion that everything is tedious. The play staged in Hamlet is a crude and blunt version of Hamlet. Borges denies its purpose was to make Hamlet seem more real. Rather it made reality seem unreal. Beckett recognised the Moustrap as fundamental and built ‘Endgame’ as Hamm’s version. Beckett wrote at the same time as Borges when the world of Dante, Racine, Proust, and Joyce seemed to have closed a certain elemental literature. He was Borges’s greatest contemporary who now grows more into a counterexample to the idea of literature ending as time passes. Luckily Borges paid little attention to Beckett and continued to circle his arcane libraries like a Joycean memorialising riverrun.
As with his views of literature ending, Borges’s recollection of the old metaphysical synoptic visions may well have unconsciously been his attempt to work against what he saw as the oncoming metaphysical silence. But contemporary philosophy has rediscovered the need for metaphysical work and grand visions thrive. Two contemporary examples: Timothy Williamson’s latest book is called ‘Modal Logic as Metaphysics’, a book ‘… written in the … conviction that, just as metaphysics is much more like the rest of science than it was once thought so too is logic.’ His question is whether it is necessary or contingent which things there are. He connects metaphysical issues of possible worlds with modal logic and explains how to read modal logic as metaphysics. Perhaps the pessimism about metaphysics reached its apotheosis with Quine and his ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ and Williamson is a contemporary working in the Barcan/Kripke counter-revolution against that. John Heil’s latest book presents a fundamental ontology and explicitly sees himself at odds with linguisticised analytic philosophy. Borges might have again found himself at home with Heil who complains about ‘… the legacy of the programme inspired by Wittgenstein, Carnap, and their successors to reduce philosophical, and in particular, metaphysical, questions to questions about language and linguistic practice. Philosophy might have left the programme behind, but its influence lingers, all the more insidious by virtue of being unacknowledged, implicit – or even explicitly disavowed.’ Heil sees himself as a distant ancestor of the philosophical positions of Spinoza and Locke, with tinctures of moderns Armstrong, Campbell, Smart and CB Martin. There are now metaphysicians that address depths Borges might have imagined were no longer of relevance or interest to contemporary philosophers. David Lewis, Kit Fine, David Chalmers, Saul Kripke and EJ Lowe are examples of metaphysicians capable of reinvigorating Borgean worlds with fresh insight.
But if Borges’s reports of the death of metaphysics through his programme of depth-charged memory were exaggerated, there is remarkable evidence that in his short story ‘Funes the Memorious’ he anticipated discoveries of contemporary neuroscience and theories of memory. This delightful book explains. There are neurons in the human brain that respond to abstract concepts. They ignore particular details. They are what enables us to have long term memories. Memory synthesises concepts. The eradication of detail is crucial. ‘Funes the Memorious’ lacked the neurons for abstraction. He consequently remembers all details. Borges mentions Funes in an obituary he wrote for James Joyce in 1941.
‘Among the works that I have not written and will never write [but that somehow justify me, in however mysterious and rudimentary a way] there is a short story, some eight to ten pages long, whose copious draft is entitles ‘Funes the Memorious’… Of the magical compadrito of my story I can state that he is a precursor to supermen, a suburban, incomplete Zarathrustra; what cannot be denied is that he is a monster. I have remembered him because a straight, uninterrupted reading of Ulysses’s four hundred thousand word s would require similar monsters.’
‘Imagine the most extreme example, a human being who does not posses the power to forget, who is damned to see becoming everywhere; such a human being would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flow apart in turbulent particles, and would lose himself in this stream of becoming; like the true student of Heraclitus, in the end he would hardly even dare to lift a finger. All action requires forgetting, just as the existence of all organic things requires not only light, but darkness as well.’
Elsewhere Borges calls Funes a metaphor for insomnia. Sleep aims at distraction from the world. ‘When I suffered from insomnia I tried to forget myself, to forget my body, the position of my body, the bed, the furniture, the three gardens of the hotel, the eucalyptus tree, the books on the shelf, all the streets of the village, the station, the farmhouses. And since I could not forget, I kept on being conscious and couldn’t fall asleep. Then I said to myself, let us suppose there was a person who couldn’t forget anything he had perceived, and it’s well known that this happened to James Joyce, who in the course of a single day could have brought out ‘Ulysses’, a day in which thousands of things happened. I thought of someone who couldn’t forget those events and who in the end dies swept away by his infinite memory. In a word that fragmentary hoodlum is me, or is an image I stole for literary purposes but which corresponds to my own insomnia.’
William James in ‘The Principles of Psychology’ writes about the symbiotic relationship between memory and forgetting, quoting from Theodule Ribot’s ‘The Illness of Memory’:
‘If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing… “The paradoxical result [is] that one condition of remembering is that we should forget. Without totally forgetting a prodigious number of states of consciousness, and momentarily forgetting a large number, we could not remember at all.’
Pliny claims for himself a prodigious memory and as such wrote about the power of memory, as well as its fragility, about king Cyrus of Persia who remembered the names of all his soldiers, Scipio who knew the names of every Roman, Cineas who knew the names of all the Roman senators after just a single day, Mithradates Eupator who learned 22 languages and Charmadas the Greek who recited by heart all the books in his library. Saimonides invented mnemonics, including the ‘method of loci’ whereby he would distribute images on a path devised in his mind. But Pliny claimed Homer wrote the Illiad in such tiny handwriting that the book fitted into an acorn, (was this Hamlet’s acorn?) and that Stabo could see for 135 miles and count enemy ships in Carthage from Sicily. There seems in this to be a link between memory and fantasy.
Borges read and remembered. He turned his reading into dreams, images, memories, puzzles. ‘I may close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts for a second or maybe less. I cannot say how many birds I saw. Was their number finite or infinite? The problem involves that of the existence of God.’ He’s pulling the reader’s leg with this little ‘Ornithological Argument’ scribbled into a copy of Leibniz’s ‘Monodology’ on May 23rd, 1951 but as is usual his joke creates vertigo. He will play with infinity and Zeno’s paradox, the nature of time and the Fourth dimension. ‘The Aleph’ is the quintessence of his paraphernalia:
‘I saw the teeming sea, I saw dawn and twilight, I saw the multitudes of the Americas. I saw a silvery cobweb at the centre of a black pyramid. I saw a broken labyrinth (it was London)… I felt vertigo and I wept, because my eyes had seen the secret and conjectural object whose name is arrogated by men, but which no man has ever seen: the inconceivable universe.’ Roderigo Quian Quiroga moves from the infinity of this Aleph to the infinity of memory. Borges read ‘The Mind of Man’ by Gustav Spiller in which Spiller counted the number of memories a person has at different times of their life. Borges was aware of JS Mill’s thought experiment of the impossible language where every individual thing had its own name. The need for general terms and categorisation and the generation of concepts is linked with memory. Borges plays with this in his invented Chinese Encyclopaedia ‘A Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’:
‘In its remote pages it is written that animals can be classified as a) imaginery b) the Emporer’s c) tame d)suckling e) mermaids f) imaginary g) stray dogs h) included in this classification i) that shake like madmen j) innumerable k) drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair l) etcetera m) that just broke the vase n) that from afar resemble flies.
Alexander Romanovich Luria in ‘ The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory’ writes about Solomon Shereshevskii (he calls him S) who is Funes-like. He was a journalist in Moscow. He was able to repeat after a single hearing sequences of 70 letters. He could repeat them in reverse order. S had very strong synaesthesia. ‘Every letter, number, or word set off a downpour of visual imagery, sounds, tastes and tactile sensations.’ Luria was frustrated that he could find no limit to S’s memory. S’s problem was not how to remember but how to forget. He said to Luria in 1939:
‘ I’m afraid I may begin to confuse the individual performances. So in my mind I erase the blackboard and cover it, as it were, with a film that’s completely opaque and impenetrable … Even so, when the next performance starts and I walk over to that blackboard, the numbers I had erased are liable to turn up again. If they alternate in a way that’s even vaguely like the order in one of the previous performances, I might not catch myself in time and would read off the chart of numbers that had not been written there before.’
He tried writing words down to forget them but this technique failed. He tried the ‘eidotechnique.’ A single detail is remembered to encapsulate the whole image. What neurons in a normal brain perform he had to do voluntarily and with great effort. He was inept at logical reasoning. His memory was purely visual and didn’t employ logic. When remembering sequences of numbers, for instance, he didn’t notice any numerical feature of the image. He would not be able to see that a certain sequence was consecutive, for instance. He found it difficult to get the content of anything he read. He could memorise whole chunks of texts but not work out what they meant. Not being able to forget meant that reading always seemed muddled. His example is from Gogol when he says:
‘It’s particularly hard if there are some details in a passage I happen to have read elsewhere. I find then that I start in one place and end up in another – everything gets muddled. Take the time I was reading ‘The Old World landowners.’ Afanasy Ivanovich went out on the porch … Well, of course, it’s such a high porch, has such creaking benches … But you know, I’d already come across that same porch before! It’s Korobochka’s porch, where Chichikov drove up! What’s liable to happen with my images is that Afanasy Ivanovich could easily run into Chichikov and Korobochka.’ He found it hard to recognise voices. He found face recognition hard too because faces always change.
Henry Gustav Molaison suffered from intractable epilepsy and at 27 had to quit his job. In 1953 he had his hippocampi removed from both brain hemispheres to stop the seizures. As a result he couldn’t form new memories. Brenda Milner studied him. She said he was a person who is always about to understand his circumstances. But can’t because he can’t contextualise the present. His short term memory worked. He used language normally and could understand jokes. This anterograde amnesia is what Leonard Shelby has in Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Memento’.
Hermann Ebbinnghaus in the 19th century inferred that some memories last minutes, others hours, months, years and that practice and repetition makes memories enduring. Williams James talks about primary or short term and secondary or long term memory. Short term memory is for navigating through the present. It lasts a few seconds. It is (roughly) our ‘stream of consciousness.’ Long-term memory stores our past. Short term memory gets lost. Visual memory gets lost almost immediately and precedes short term memory. Some short term memories turn in to long term memories. Repetition causes this somehow. Sleep is a vital part of this repetition process, consolidation of memory takes place whilst asleep. Photography also helps this process. We remember events better if there are photos we occasionally revisit of the event. Memory is full of nuances.
Borges contrasts two characters in terms of memory. Funes cannot forget whereas Homer ‘… had never taken the time to enjoy the pleasures of memory. Impressions would just slide off him, ephemeral and vivid: the vermilion of a potter, a sky laden with stars that were also gods, the moon , from which a lion had fallen, the smoothness of marble to slow and sensitive fingertips, the warmth of boar meat, which he liked to tear up with white, brisk bites, a Phoenician word, the black shadow that a lance projects on the yellow sand, the proximity of the sea or of women, the heavy wine whose roughness cut the sweetness of honey, could encompass the entirety of his soul.’ In another story professor Hermann Soergel turns down the offer of having Shakespeare’s memory when he realises his own identity depends on him not having Shakespeare’s.
Where is memory? The question has a history. Aristotle thought in terms of a monism. Everything was just matter and the form it took. Borges writes of the medieval Muslim Aristotelian philosopher Averroes who denies the immortality of the soul because of this. About a hundred years later Aquinas managed to finesse immortality out of this Aristotelian ground by having a distinction between active and receptive form. The mind, being active, is immortal. David Lynch agrees with Averroes however. Averroes asserts that the individual soul becomes part of the universal soul on death. Lynch thinks this, and contrasts this with bees. Bees don’t have individual souls for Lynch, even though he calls one bee Riley and draws one in a state of dread. Plato and Descartes disagreed with Aristotle and Averroes and thought the mind was a different substance from the body. This is an outlier position these days but not unthinkable. Epiphenomenal ghosts answers the challenge of physics but for many seems to include redundancy in its conditions for success.
Phrenology was suggested by Franz Gall (1758-1828). Phrenology locates different mental functions in different parts of the brain. Out of this developed studies of the brain and the location of specific brain functions in specific areas of the brain. We speak with the left hemisphere. Up to the second half of the last century it was believed memories were located all over the brain. But they are not. Jerry Fodor thinks modern version of phrenology won’t help answer the philosophical questions regarding how the mind works.
In 1887 John Langdon Down lectured on what he called ‘idiot savants’ . The film ‘Rain Man’ features a character with this syndrome. The film is based on Kim Peek who is said to have the most astonishing memory on earth. It was estimated that he knew the content of 12,000 books. He could read different pages of a book with different eyes. He read eight pages in 53 seconds and recalled 98% of what he’d read. He couldn’t filter. He had limited capacity to reason. Any problem not based on memory stumped him or proved difficult. He only read factual books. Multiple interpretation and ambiguity was avoided. He processed information literally. He ended talks around the world saying, ‘We are all different. You don’t have to be handicapped to be different. Treat other people like you would like to be treated and the world will be a better place.’
Daniel Tammet recited from memory the first 22,514 digits of pi on March 14th , 2004, in Oxford. He combined synaesthesia and autism. He spent most of his childhood thinking of numbers. He speaks more than 10 languages. He learned to speak Icelandic in a week. He was good at chess but couldn’t do tournaments because he couldn’t filter irrelevant information. He could not read between the lines, follow conversations easily, understand metaphors, sense a mood or understand a general point. A great mathematician, such as Enzo Gentile, struggles at times with simple calculations whilst understanding vast and complex theorems and proofs. Leslie Lemke is blind with severe cerebral palsy yet when at a piano plays countless pieces from memory. He plays Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto after a single hearing. Stephen Wiltshire learned to talk at 9 but after a half hour helicopter trip produced a city panorama of staggering detail. Since then he has done accurate paintings of Rome, London, New York and Madrid. He draws details and goes on to produce a whole rather than beginning with a general outline and then filling in. Witshire solves jigsaw puzzles with the pieces upside down. Oliver Sacks wrote about him in ‘An Anthropologist on Mars.’ Nobody knows what brain alteration makes a savant.
‘Until the End of the World’ has William Hurt film the planet with a camera that films images and the brain reactions of the person shooting the pictures. He transplants them into his wife who cries inconsolably when she sees her memories. Memories become an addiction. To not forget is an illness. To remember we must forget. To forget everything or never to forget are both terrible conditions. Jill Price has the strange facility to only be able to recall immense details of her autobiography. She has problems with anything to do with generality, concepts and abstractions. Memory reconciliation can lead to fantasy or false memories. Memory reconciliation is what we do to filter out unpleasant memories. Within reason it is healthy.
Mnemosyne is the personification of memory and Lethe the personification of forgetting in Greek myth . They are associated with two rivers. Lethe flows through the cavern of Hypnos the personification of sleep. Drinking fully from Mnemosyn’e s water would makes us like Funes. But Lethe is drunk at the moment of death. Some people remember very little. One man spends days ‘… as though every half minute he were waking up from a prolonged coma. Every time he sees his wife he hugs her and kisses her, moved to tears, thinking he has not seen her in years. The only thing he can do is play the piano.’ He cannot work out what happened to him. His wife says his life is ‘a moment to moment consciousness.’. The man with a 30 second memory says, ‘ I’ve never seen anyone at all … I never heard a word until now. I know I haven’t dreamed, even – day and night are the same. Precisely like death. No thoughts at all. Brain has been inactive, and day and night exactly the same. No dreams even… It’s been like death. I’ve never seen an human being before, never had a dream or thought. Brain has been totally inactive, day and night the same, no thoughts at all. As far as I’m concerned the doctors have been totally incompetent. I’ve never seen a doctor the whole time.’
Do I exist? Plato’s cave purports to show that we perceive the result of concepts rather than the concepts themselves. The Platonic philosopher abstracts the concepts from what is perceived. These he calls Ideas and believes they are unquestionable fundamental truths. Platonic Realism is the target of Aristotle who disputes the existence of two realms – one of Ideas and one of things. Do I exist? Aristotle considered concepts to be merely abstractions of ordinary things and not entities from a different realm. In ‘On The Soul’ he writes:
‘To the thinking soul images serve as if they were contents of perception (and when it asserts or denies them to be good or bad or pursues them). That is why the soul never thinks without an image … And as in the former case what is to be pursued or avoided is marked out for it, so where there is no sensation and it is engaged upon the images [the thinking soul] is moved to pursuit or avoidance. E.g. perceiving by sense that the beacon is fire, it recognises in virtue of the general faculty of sense that it signifies the enemy, because it sees it moving.’ Aquinas agreed. Images and phantoms are formed in our minds from abstractions. Idealists like Bishop Berkeley took this further and considered what we take to be real to be a construction of the mind. The medieval Islamic scientist Ibn al-Haytham deduced that the perception of size depends on unconscious assessment. Hermann von Helmholtz thought that the brain makes ‘unconscious inferences to interpret external reality. In ‘The Facts of Perception’ of 1878 he writes: ‘The objects in the space around us appear to possess the qualities of our sensations. They appear to be red or green, cold or warm, to have an odor or a taste , and so on. Yet these qualities of sensations belong only to our nervous system and do not extend at all into the space around us.’ The rules of inference Helmholtz discusses were the focus of the Gestalt psychologists of the 1930s. Illusions such as Kanizsa’s triangle and Ponzo’s illusion are explained as being due to the way objects are grouped according to similarity, continuity, proximity and so on. Do I exist? Memory is required to recognise anything. Borges quoted Coleridge who thought we are all either Platonists or Aristotelians. Do I exist if I can’t forget? Do I exist if I can’t remember?
Helmholtz argues ‘we process signs of what we see not copies.’ The neurophysiology of vision leads to understanding the generation of memories. Ideas developed by Borges in ‘Fumes the Memorious’ are linked with this interpretation of memory. Camillo Golgi stained neurons to make them visible. The ‘reticular theory’ stated that the brain was ‘ a mesh of intertwined nerve cells.’ Santiago Ramon y Cajal refuted this theory. He developed a ‘neuron doctrine’ arguing that neurons were the fundamentals of brain activity. Cajal and Golgi shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1906 for opposite theories, the same year Beckett was born. Cajal was a talented artist as well as a great scientist. There are trillions of neurons. Everything we are and do is a result of their behaviour.
Jerry Lettvin’s ‘Gradmother Cell parable’ is the story guiding recent findings. Akakhi Akakhievitch locates 18,000 cells connected with the concept of mother. He treats Philip Roth’s Portnoy by ablating each cell and cures him of his mother fixation. In reality, more neurons respond to a photo of a mother than to a picture of a stranger. They respond to the concept.
The Jennifer Aniston neuron is famous proof. A neuron was shown to fire when stimulated by a picture of Jennifer Aniston but not other celebrities. Other neuron’s were identified for other celebrities. Could one know what the person was mentally visualising by knowing which neuron was firing? Yes. The science fiction of ‘Until The End of the World’ becomes a shadowing of science fact as does ‘Funes the Memorious.’
Quiroga warns us not to make rash inferences: ‘ … we cannot say that there is one and only one neuron responding to a given concept, and neither can we say that there is a group of neurons responding to one and only one thing. We can, nevertheless, state that in the areas that we study there are groups of relatively few neurons (though not just one) that respond to a small number of concepts. .. we have sparse representation, or, as Horace Barlow called them, “cardinal neurons.”
Sparse representation isn’t a generalisable fact about the brain. The visual cortex, for example, is dense, implicit and detail-orientated. The hippocampus connects perception to memory storage using the Jennifer Aniston neuron. The neurons like the Jennifer Aniston one abstract concepts that are used to create links, associations ideas and memories. William James’s associationist idea is this: ‘If we have not the idea itself, we have certain ideas connected with it. We run over those ideas, one after another, in hopes that some one of them will suggest the idea we are in quest of; and if any one of them does, it is always one so connected with it, as to call it up in the way of association… The secret of a good memory is thus the secret of forming diverse and multiple associations with every fact we care to retain.’
We tend to remember the meaning of things, their pattern and abstract structure. ‘I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts for a second or maybe less; I cannot say how many birds I saw. Was their number definite, or indefinite?… In any case, I saw fewer than (say) ten birds and more than one, but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three , or two. I saw a number between ten and one which is not nine, eight, seven, six, five etc..’ Quiroga thinks what Borges is saying here explains the difference between computing and human thought. This is a decisive reason for rejecting learning by rote and developing pedagogies around the making of meaning. The hippocampus is where we lose detail and abstract. Neurons are sparse, they abstract and allow memories to form. Funes the Memorious lacks the Jennifer Aniston neuron. ‘Not only was it difficult for him to understand that the generic term ‘dog’ could embrace so many disparate individuals of diverse size and shapes, it bothered him that the dog seen in profile at 3:14 would be called the same dog at 3:15 seen from the front.’
Different levels of categorisation lead to variety of meanings. Borges writes in ‘The Size of My Hope’: ‘The World of appearance is a jumble of shuffled sensations … Language is an effective ordering of the world’s enigmatic abundance. In other words, we attribute nouns to reality. We touch a round shape, we see a little lump of light the colour of dawn, a tingling elates our mouth, and we lie to ourselves and we say that these three disparate things are but one and that it is called an orange. The moon itself is a fiction. Apart from astronomical facts, upon which we will not dwell here, there is no resemblance whatsoever between the yellow circle now clearly rising above the Recoleta and the thin pink sliver that I saw above the Plaza de Mayo a few nights ago. Every noun is an abbreviation. Instead of enumerating cold, sharp, hurtful, unbreakable, shiny, pointy, we say dagger; instead of the sun receding and the shadows approaching, we say dusk.’ In ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ he has a language with no nouns. Such total idealism, thinks Borges, invalidates science.
‘Funes, let us not forget, was incapable of conceiving general, Platonic ideas … He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thinking. To think is to forget differences, to generalise, to abstract. In Funes’s crowded world there was nothing but almost immediate details.’ The meaningless detail, the ruinous loneliness of a catastrophic signal to noise ratio casts Borges character as a quintessentially modern monster. He is one of ours, entwined in a something whose silence is not even death.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 9th, 2014.