by Eric Bies

I think of Pearl S. Buck and end up thinking of William F. Buckley. I think of The Good Earth—of hovels unworthy of Frankenstein’s monster and a palace sacked in smoke, its shriveled matriarch glued to an opium pipe—and end up thinking of Firing Line. Clicking over to YouTube, typing, hitting enter, clicking, watching: after the FBI Warning about unauthorized reproduction and so forth, past the Hoover Institution’s little slide about same, through the twittery culture-conferring bit of Bach as theme, this is number 267, an interview with Jorge Luis Borges. I giggle a little as South America’s Titan, gazing literally blindly out past everyone in attendance that day in Buenos Aires, clips and interrupts Buckley’s stately introduction, an introduction that begins with Buckley reading off words about Borges, by Borges.

Buckley: About himself he said recently, “As for a message, well, I have no message. Some things—”

Borges: That’s right, there’s no message whatever.

Buckley [places a hand on Borges’ arm]: “Some things simply occur to me and I write them down with no aim to hurt anyone or to convert anyone. This is all I can say. I make this public confession of my poverty before everybody—”

Borges: Yes.

Buckley: “Besides, had I not done so, you would have known—”

Borges: But I think you may know.

Buckley: “—you would have known it was true,” yes that’s what I said.

Borges: Yes.

Buckley: I’m just going to finish this introduction, and then we’ll exchange—

Borges: That’s right, yes, that’s right.

Buckley: Uh, about him others—

Borges: [inarticulate]

Buckley: About him others have written that he is the greatest living writer. Still others, that he has influenced the literature of the world more than anyone alive. Jorges Luis Borges lives here in Buenos Aires, although he has traveled extensively, especially in the United States, and taught most recently at Harvard for a year. He is blind, since the late fifties. He does not mind it, he says [Buckley’s brows go up], because now he can live his dreams with less distraction—


Video paused, I get up from my desk, traverse the kitchenette, use the toilet, and refill my glass with water from the tap. My apartment isn’t bugged or anything, but if it were, say, with a dozen little cameras, or even if the little man in my phone were to tune in for a peep to help pass the afternoon, dangling his eye from the eye of my phone which I carry from point to point before returning to my desk—nothing would appear awry. On the surface, I, the walls, even the water in this glass remain totally unperturbed. But, for seventy seconds or so, those last few pre-pause words, far from the conclusion of Buckley’s introduction, have been shimmering brightly inside of me.

Sitting here, staring at screen, lips a totally unperturbed line, I think a bit scatteredly: blind now live dreams less distraction. And of course my mind runs to those people, what was the term? I click open a new tab, google “body dysmorphia where people feel they should be disabled,” and there it is: body integrity identity disorder, BIID for short, and recall those alarming articles I read some months back—one about a woman who poured acid in her eyes because she’d been convinced her whole life she should have been born blind—another about the red tape barring some despairing fellow from parting ways with his limbs, and imagine it: the surgeon, seeing a man in full possession of bodily health, refuses to operate.

I think of what’s to come and end up thinking of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan—of digital displays embedded in sidewalk, synthetic super-duper dope and a mainstream market for human flesh. For a long time to be alive has been to experience one’s existence as providential, positively bleeding-edge, but we don’t know how to feel about now now. At the tip of time’s spear here in the USA—and where else is there?—life expectancy continues to reverse its course with a headstart in the race for mediocrity. Young people are drugging themselves and killing themselves at greater rates than ever before. Then there’s this timely matter of artificial intelligence. Do we pause or do we not? Is utopia or dystopia waiting for us at the other end of the next great disorderly leap? That leading AI researchers themselves cannot reliably project what will happen next if we do not (pause) does not inspire trust in their enterprise. But how can we (pause) now? And when have we ever? Rhetorical questions, says AI researcher Max Tegmark, who has indicated notable precedent in the field of molecular cloning: remember how Dolly the lamb plopped out of her surrogate mother nearly three decades ago? Though the project’s next great disorderly leap has persisted within the scope of our capabilities for some time, we have yet to press the big red button on the machine labeled “HUMAN CLONING.”

On June 20, 1974, three years before Borges appeared on Firing Line, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown opened to hard-boiled moviegoers. I mention such apparently disparate facts for no better reason than the thrill of synchronic noticing: the movie, which has less to do with LA’s Chinatown district than a ploy to erect aqueducts, opened the same year that a Chinese farmer, seeking water during a drought, sunk a well and discovered the Terracotta Army.

The details of that Army are well known: at the beginning of his reign, Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, initiated the construction of an unbelievably vast tomb complex. Today, a million or more tourists visit the official Terracotta Museum each year to view a fraction of the thousands of life-size human figures produced by the Emperor’s artisans, who expertly crafted generals, archers, charioteers, stable boys, light infantry, heavy infantry, civil officials, even acrobats, musicians, and strongmen. They made horses and chariots, and more recent excavations have unearthed sensitively rendered cranes placed beside underground streams.

In an essay from 1950 titled “The Wall and the Books,” Borges attempts to reconcile two of the Emperor’s other notable contributions to his time: the construction of the Great Wall and the destruction “of all the books that had been written before his time.”

The fact that the two vast undertakings—the construction of five or six hundred leagues of stone to ward off the barbarians, and the rigorous abolition of history, or rather, of the past—had proceeded from the same person and had come to be regarded as expressions of his character, unaccountably satisfied and, at the same time, disturbed me.

He goes on to demonstrate past and future precedent for such glaring inconsistency, considering, too, that the two acts may have simply occurred at different points in the Emperor’s career. “And so, depending on the order we chose, we should have the image of a king who began by destroying and then resigned himself to conserving; or the image of a disillusioned king who destroyed what he had previously defended.”

Borges isn’t in the business of arriving at a sweeping conclusion. The joy of his essay derives from its characteristic combination of piercing intelligence, lightly worn erudition, and unpretentious imaginative ambition. Of course, in 1950, the author of “The Wall and the Books” only held a fragment of the full picture.

And here’s the final pause: since Chinese archaeologists broke ground on the first pit of ceramic soldiers, since the discovery of yet more pits and their populations of impressively diverse forms, for more than two millennia, the world has yet to learn what’s inside the Emperor’s mausoleum. The tall, well-formed generals, the armored rank and file, the retinues of entertainers and servants—all of these are understood to stand, as it were, at the gates of what we all must acknowledge to be the Real Deal.

The Real Deal: in comparison to what we’re privy to, the central tomb, which lies dormant beneath a sprawling earthwork bristling with conifers, must be unimaginably richer in every dimension imaginable: obviously in spaciousness, but also in the cleverness of its design and the range of the artifacts it contains. Maybe, at its exact center, sleeps the mummified Emperor himself!

But why the pause? According to an article in Smithsonian, “The emperor’s mausoleum has not been opened due to preservation concerns and the possibility of booby traps,” which, though a tad irksome, sounds sound enough to me.