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Zahir: Desire and Eclipse

By Oscar Mardell.

Christian Patracchini, editor, Zahir: Desire and Eclipse (ZenoPress, 2020)

In Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘The Zahir’, the narrator — a fictional version of Borges himself –— describes the course of his obsession with ‘a common twenty-centavo coin into which a razor or penknife has scratched the letters N T and the number two’. The coin, we learn, is the latest incarnation of the eponymous Zahir — a talisman, of sorts, only one which doesn’t protect but transfixes those who come into contact with it. The narrator received it as change in a bar in Buenos Aires, fell under its spell immediately, and dreamt about it all night. Hoping to break free, he spent the coin in another bar the following evening, but to no avail: even without it, he continues to dream of it, not only at night but during the daytime as well. Now, he thinks so rarely of anything else that he risks losing touch with reality and with his own self. Concluding his tale, he refers to a mystic text pronouncing that ‘the Zahir is the shadow of the Rose and the rending of the Veil’. He elaborates:

I link that pronouncement to this fact: In order to lose themselves in God, the Sufis repeat their own name or the ninety-nine names of God until the names mean nothing anymore. I long to travel that path.
‘Perhaps’, wonders the narrator, ‘I will succeed in wearing away the Zahir by thinking and re-thinking about it; perhaps behind the coin is God.’

Zahir: Desire and Eclipse — the latest volume of ZenoPress’ anthology series — is a collection of poems, essays, and short stories prompted by Borges’ tale. As Christian Patracchini puts it in his introduction:

this anthology explores how the Zahir…sticks on our minds and refuses to be shaken. The aim is to consider how its cultural meanings are produced and how it shapes and resonates in our imagination, as well as causing consequences in various aspects of life. Each work investigates how the Zahir allows itself to be a screen onto which we project our anxieties and desires and function as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected.

An ambitious undertaking, but one which succeeds because it, too, travels the path of the Sufis — because it’s devoted to ‘thinking and re-thinking’ about the Zahir. What, then, if anything, lies ‘behind the coin’?

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Perhaps the collection’s most critical act of ‘re-thinking’ is Emma Bolland’s ‘AM/THOUGHT/ALWAYS’ — a brilliant retelling of Borges’ story from the perspective of the late Teodelina Villar, whose wake Borges’ narrator had just left when he received the Zahir. Of Villar, Borges tells us:

Back in 1930, photographs of her had littered the pages of worldly magazines; that ubiquity may have had something to do with the fact that she was thought quite pretty, although not all the pictures of her unconditionally supported that hypothesis. Furthermore, Teodolina Villar was less concerned with beauty than with perfection. 

‘Shall I confess’ asks Borges’ narrator, ‘that, moved by the sincerest of Argentine passions, snobbery, I was in love with her…?’ Bolland’s piece is a sobering reminder that we simply cannot trust his profession of ardour. ‘If I was as ordinary as he suggested’ asks Bolland’s Villar, ‘why the obsession?’:

As a literary man, why was his reading of me so reductive? What was it that he thought he was in love with?

It also forces us to search the original for clues. There, Borges’ narrator explains why he was in the bar in the first place:

In the rhetorical figure known as oxymoron, the adjective applied to a noun seems to contradict that noun…Departing from my last visit to Teodolina Villar and drinking a glass of cheap gin in a corner bar-and-grocery store was a kind of oxymoron: its very vulgarity and accessibility were what tempted me.
‘What was it that he thought he was in love with?’ Not with Villar per se, but with her distinction from the vulgar and the accessible — or, as the narrator puts it, not with ‘beauty’ but with ‘perfection’.

But to eschew the one in favour of the other is a grave oversight. In ‘FASCINATION’ — the essay with which the collection opens — Genese Grill explains:

I only maintain what seems obvious, that there is — contrary to one very entrenched line of social construction — some meaningful connection between outside and inside, that beauty might well mean something about a person who possesses it — something beyond or outside of reproductive fitness or good genes. That beautiful objects, natural or human-made, have powers, are portals, enrich and change our lives…

Only one who believes that the world as it is is ugly would think that the word beauty referred only to detached parts of life. Beauty, in other words, is far from ‘vulgarity’ — it isn’t some kitschy distraction from life; yet beauty is the very model of ‘accessibility’ — life itself is beautiful. Nor is ‘perfection’ so straightforward. In ‘COMPLICATED PERFECTION’, Flowerville argues for a more subtle definition of the term, writing:

Perfection is not this unattainable thing, no, perfection means to make it through.
…it is this you learned from the Zahir, the Zahir is perhaps a verb, leading from treacherous complexity to gentle serenity.

‘What was it that he thought he was in love with?’ Not even Villar’s ‘perfection’, it seems, but simply an alibi: a license to exercise his ‘snobbery’ — without which, ‘Departing from my last visit to Teodolina Villar and drinking a glass of cheap gin in a corner bar-and-grocery store’ seems less an oxymoron than a tautology. There is, to put it bluntly, something quietly perfect about a cheap gin in a corner-bar-and-grocery, and something wholly vulgar about untouchable celebrity — something which Borges’ narrator fails to see well before he is blinded by the Zahir.

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The collection is rife with similar figures. In Andrew Gallix’s ‘ON MOONING CONSIDERED ONE OF THE FINE ARTS’, the protagonist, Sostène Zanzibar, is ‘fully half-cut’. In Annie Q. Syed’s, ‘AS IF BETWEEN COUNTRIES OR PARTS OF MY LIFE’, the narrator remarks, ‘I am full in my emptiness’. And in Octavia Bright’s, ‘HOW TO LOSE YOURSELF’, the narrator is a ‘sober alcoholic’. Time and again, life is shown to be not just beautiful but inherently contradictory; and oxymoron, the surest expression of its impossible consistencies.

But perhaps most contradictory of all is the self itself. For many pieces in Zahir, the very notion of a cohesive identity, of a consistent and unified subject, is a fallacy; the first person is always too poorly defined, not simply an ‘I’ but, as Anthony Erin puts it in ‘REVIVER (Palindrome)’ an ‘I, hazy’. Bright’s narrator arrives at a similar conclusion:

I am not the woman I was then, but I am still able to recall, and perhaps recount, what happened. I am still albeit only partially myself.

That final sentence is lifted from the Borges. There, it’s intended as another oxymoron: to be ‘only partially’ oneself seems an impossible contradiction (the self, shouldn’t be able to be anything other than itself, or else it becomes other). But here it functions as another tautology and makes total sense — the self was fragmentary, partial, from the outset. As Iris Colomb writes in ‘ONE / GONE’:

Between the folds where I still hold / I hardly feel the break
When I say I is only part / a name is all it takes

The suggestion here is that the ‘I’ (like the ‘it’ in expressions like ‘it is raining’) is simply a verbal construct — a placeholder for an agency which only exists in language and whose entire being consists in ‘a name’. For Borges’ narrator, the Zahir destroyed his identity; for this collection, it simply revealed the existing cracks.

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Accordingly, much of Zahir treats language with a degree of distrust. Heading home in a taxi, Gallix’s Zanzibar experiences a version of echolalia when ‘The sound of his address’ is ‘spoken repeatedly in mellifluous robotic tones’:

Echoing over the imaginary tannoy, it felt like a terminus rather than the mere destination it usually was. And never a home.

Here, as in the Sufis’ dhikr, the incessant reiteration of the words reduces them to meaningless noises, divorced from the thing to which they ordinarily refer. And Zanzibar is forced, like the Sufis before God, to confront that thing in itself. The same phenomenon is experienced by Bright’s narrator, for whom ‘The words continued to mean nothing…a string of sounds to repeat into abstraction’. And it’s further explored in Andrew Dyer’s ‘INTERFERENCES’ — geometrical arrangements of text which are, in one sense, meaningless (Dyer’s text is too fragmented, and too densely layered, to be readable), but which still manage to be significant — to gesture towards a reality which exists beyond ordinary modes of representation, a territory separate from the map, as it were. It’s a place both freeing and terrifying. As CC O’Hanlon writes in ‘RISING’:

I had no chart, no compass, no way point to sail towards, but it didn’t matter now. All bearings were lost. I would trace the contours of a new shore, where the desert had somehow become one with the sea.

Where Borges’ narrator claims to have lost touch with reality, O’Hanlon’s has simply discovered another — one that exists beyond the taxonomical distinctions (like ‘desert’ and ‘sea’) with which we divide it up, and by which we are divided from it. The implication is critical: by virtue of being human, Borges’ narrator was out of touch to begin with — already divorced from the world around him, not by some mystical coin, but by signifying practices more generally. His fascination with the Zahir is not some new delusion, simply a consolidation of the existing ones.

What lies behind the coin? For this collection, it’s coins all the way down.

 

 

Oscar Mardell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 19th, 2021.