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NOTE: If you haven’t read Jorge Luis Borges' story "The Three Versions of Judas", you can find it here. You should read it before you read this, and it's only a few pages anyway.

When the gospel of Judas hullabaloo started up, I immediately thought of the mind-blowing, theologically subversive Borges story, “Three Versions of Judas.” In the story, Borges suggests (via the fictional scholar Nils Runeberg) that Judas’s role as necessary catalyst in Christ’s sacrifice for humanity leaves us with deep-seated problems of interpretation: should the man who was an agent in saving of humanity be an outcast? From a very realistic standpoint, we know that the officials would have no problem locating Jesus, who spoke publicly on a daily basis in the synagogue. Therefore, we conclude, Judas plays some important literary or theological role that is integral.

The following discussion is in regards to various conundrums the story presents, and how we are to bring them to bear on both an understanding of Christian theology, of Borges as a writer, and on literature in general.

Blake: So here's the idea: Judas was a necessary agent of Christ's crucifixion, and therefore in saving humanity. I started thinking about causality, and the differences between causality in real life, and causality in literature. There's the idea that the story of Christ's betrayal is both a human one, i.e. one man betraying another for money (clearly immoral), and that I define as “real life”; on the other hand there is a theological story, i.e. Christ knew that Judas would betray him and, according to the gospel of Judas, assures him that though “you will be cursed by the other generations . . . you will come to rule over them.” So in that second sense, the betrayal was not immoral.

Austin: Can you explain further what you mean about causality in reality versus literature?

Blake: Much of this comes from an essay on Borges called “Borges and the Plain Sense of Things” published at ReadySteadyBook. The article outlines the ideas of causality in reality vs. fiction like this: in reality, one thing leads to another, we see things very directly, i.e. man lights cigarette, man falls asleep, house burns down, whatever, it's A to B to C. But in literature, the causality is false: certainly, the same burning cigarette chain can exist, but it’s a pretense, there's a preconceived idea that we know how it ends. We know that the characters end up a certain way, even if we're reading it for the first time. We may not know what that end is, but that end has already been determined. Borges prefers detective stories, “for detective stories go to the heart of the nature of literature and raise questions about the difference between causality in real life and causality in the imagination […]For the detective story, unlike the novel, accepts from the start that the logic of fiction is not the logic of life and that as a fictional construct its prime duty is to be interesting, not realistic.” In other words, A to B to C in real life doesn’t make a good detective story, so it’s made interesting; this is an accepted mode of the genre. In the classic novel, however, there is the pretense that real life is being represented in its dailiness and banality as well as its inspiration, and there’s the idea that that whole project is false: it propagates a false view of life itself. Literature has a need to make things into a narrative, to make them interesting. A straight-fact account of reality wouldn't be very compelling. It’s by nature deceitful in some sense.

Austin: You say that a factual account of "real life" isn't interesting and literature, in its attempt to create an interesting story, is deceitful in some sense. But this is my question: is real life not interesting? If it is, does not literature serve a crucial purpose in revealing the captivating and intriguing nature of life, albeit by a maybe deceitful, yet interesting tale? Isn't there some sort of "truth" in these lies?

Blake: I wouldn’t say that real life isn’t interesting; just the opposite. What I mean is that reality directly transposed into literature’s narrative is not interesting according to the constructs of literature. Reality itself is so interesting that it’s necessary to point out literature’s falling-short—pointing out the importance that a certain thing is a manipulative fiction comes out of a sense of wonder with the real world.

But I think you’re asking whether literature can be useful in illuminating some kind of “truth.” We’ve had something of a similar discussion before: how do you define truth? Is a better word “meaning”? It’s a rabbit hole and before we slide into that quagmire, suffice it to say that literature and life are separate, and that they obey their own laws, and, most importantly, that the nature of literature is manipulative, moreover that is its power.

I want to get back to the idea of causality because it might help illuminate Borges. For the sake of this discussion we have to agree that the story of Christ’s betrayal functions as literature in this context, albeit literature with pressing theological ramifications (believed or not). The essay I’ve referenced centers on two ideas that stem out of the ideas of real-life vs. literature causality; they are actuality and possibility respectively. The idea is that only the single moment we live in, in the most immediate, present tense, is actuality. This is one school of pragmatism’s “truth in experience” or rather “meaning in experience.” This means a suspicion of generalizations and living under ideologies, or of thinking of ideas as ever-present realities; ideas are tools.
The opposite of actuality is possibility, and this represents basically everything outside of the single moment we live in; it even represents what-has-already-happened, as history can only be recalled by thinking of it, which robs one of pure actuality. Actuality itself cannot be conceived, as Kierkagaard argued; it is false to use the term in any other sense than in reference to real life. And actuality itself can only be suggested, because the moment it is conceived it becomes possibility.

Austin: "And actuality itself can only be suggested, because the moment it is conceived it becomes possibility…."
But what about language that demands actuality? For example, Greek has four moods, the indicative, the subjunctive, the optative and the imperative. Here I’m mainly concerned with the subjunctive and the imperative, though it’s important to note that the indicative is termed “a simple, direct assertion of fact,” so it terms of what you’ve been saying this mood destroys actuality, right? Anyways, Greek breaks the subjunctive up into three distinct labels: the hortatory, the potential and the prohibitive. The word looks exactly the same though based on context (and the preference of the translator) you translate it differently. The hortatory subjunctive, my main concern here, is used to express a request or proposal of action, often in the first person plural and translated with “let us.” Thus, “let us spend exorbitant amounts on wine!”

Similar grammatical concepts exist in all languages, I’m just talking what I know. So my question is this: does not the expression of something with the subjunctive not just suggest but demand actuality? Like create a space, with words, in which actuality will bloom so to speak.

And then we also have the imperative, which is like what it sounds: an order. “Spend your paycheck on wine, now!” Does this not also demand and subsequently create actuality? It gets into the linguistic term of a speech action (and here I begin to overstep the limits of my knowledge but who cares?). The basic idea of speech action is that the saying something creates the action, like when one says “I do” during a wedding ceremony, it creates the actuality of marriage.

I know I’m talking about spoken word here but is not the grammar employed in literature an attempt to capture the nuances of spoken language?

[End Part 1. Please feel free to comment with new ideas and directions.]

I’m recently interested by the idea that putting something into language—an idea, a person’s personality quirks, description of the streetscape—is a way to attack it, in the sense that it cuts the thing off, cuts it short. It provides reasonable, definable limits around a thing, limits that are universal and no longer personal, even if the language is a poetic stretch; it is nonetheless language, which is limited. There’s a violence in putting something into words, a kind of forced-fit struggle to make it literal, and therefore to kill it. The idea that defining something by language is the death of that thing; there can only be suggestion, evocation, or a mysterious puzzle or riddle whose key is the idea. See Joel's post about literal meaning, which includes this quote: "To define an expression is, paradoxically speaking, to explain how to get along without it." -W.V. Quine, Quiddities, p. 43-44.

Somewhat related, I’ve also been thinking about language as a thing itself, specifically as a tool to express things, as a medium like painting. I find that I’m more interested, for example, in the way a sentence is made and the voice of a writer than what is being said. Like words are paint and can be made abstract. I find I’ll read something and afterwards, not recall any of it. But the experience of reading it was engaging and interesting. Language toes an interesting line, since it’s by nature conceptually representational (these symbols in a row mean this object, thing, concept), but not physically representation (the word tree does not look like an actual tree). It can be made into something abstract, not in the physical sense of lines on a paper (that would simply be drawing abstractly), but by the associations and evocations that can be made mixing and contrasting the concepts behind the actual words/language. “Abstract Writing” must always tied to literal reality. It will always operate through reference, never able to become the referent. And once the referent becomes language, it is dead.

This probably makes no sense.

via Googlechat, May 1st, 2006. We were discussing the advantages of film vs. digital photography, in response to this image. More of these remarkable artworks can be seen here, more cumbersome official site here. Drunk mispellings have been edited, except for comedic purposes.

Blake: the reality is film's life is limited. there will always be artists using it, but it really is an outmoded medium
Austin: so you think digital has reached the level of film? I think my photography friend would strangle you. do you think digital software can imitate the printing process of photos?
Blake: it's not about imitating it--it's just different. if somebody wants to reach a certain effect using the developing process (i.e. an artist) that's fine--but digital allows you instant and more flexible manipulation of the image. maybe your friend who is a film purist likes the integrity of the process, the working-with-your-hands immediacy of it. that's something i can understand
Austin: yeah
i think you've got something there, digitial and film photography will be almost different disciplines
Blake: but i wouldn't entertain any argument that film has better quality, not anymore
Austin: hmmmm...I need to just read both sides...i guess most photoblogs are working with digital now
everyone wants the pictures on the web as soon as possible
much easier to do with digital
Blake: i love thinking about how the digital world and the internet is changing our perception of things. like the idea that a film camera creates an actual artifact of the image, whereas the digitial one is all data that can be reproduced anywhere in the world with just a combination of 1s and 0s. this idea of the art object disappearing
Austin: do you think that's good or bad for art?
i mean because I think the art object adds to the allure of the art
seeing the original is quite different than seeing the reproduction
of course then there's the question of what is the original of a digital photo
does it have an original?
Blake: definitely. i agree, and i think most would, so that's why people will always paint and make sculptures, and why having a print-out of even something that began as a digital image is important. but i wouldn't say it's bad for art. nothing is ever bad for art if one adopts a certain perspective. wouldn't you say art is impossible to destroy, that it's too universally human? so the only available option is for art to become larger, to reach more people
it doesn't have an original except as a concept, I guess
Austin: I guess the only thing I would say that is bad for art is bad art?
Blake: yes exactly
that's very true
Austin: I love the idea of art being impossible to destroy
Blake: things that are lesser arts, or merely competent, are the threat to good art.
Austin: well I am drunk...still
that last margarita kicked in about twenty minutes agoe
Blake: your mind seems clear enough. you're probably at the point where you're able to think more abstractly, and soon enough that alcohol will overcome that and it'll just get muddy. but there is that small window...
Austin: indeed
if we could only keep the small window
Blake: that's why fitzgerald and hemingway drunk and wrote
Austin: and became's a balance of sorts I guess...but i'm really dwelling on this idea that art is such a part of existence it can't be destroyed
or is that why it can't be destroyed?
Blake: it can't be destroyed because it is constantly being created, and even efforts at destroying inevitably result in new thinking and more creating. but there's the idea that average art can captivate an audience so that they're too easily satisfied. the question is how to bypass that
Austin: it's just a matter of getting people to realize that there is something better
but you always run into a sticky situation with that
Saramago has this part in Baltasar and Blimunda where this musician says "they can't truly appreciate what I play because they're not educated to understand"
which sounds snobbish but it's true maybe?
someone can really enjoy something like 'crash" because it looks good and sounds good and makes them think...they're not open to the things, say, Kubrick does in his films
Blake: as much as i resist thinking it, you're right--education is necessary to appreciate the arts. that's actually an idea that depresses me. shouldn't good art be immediate? but i suppose the way our minds are, so media-conditioned and saturated, that you have to work hard against it. maybe it's not so much educating as unlearning certain tendencies and re-learning how to think deeply
Austin: or, filtering what is put out, I mean certain people should not be allowed to create things for public consumption but some how or the other they are allowed to put their "art" out for the public at large
I'd be the first to say people are smarter than we give them credit for but they've got to be given the right "test"
and education comes a lot with experience no?
Blake: did you read the TMN article about Paris Hilton? ["Paris Hilton and the American Cannibal"]
Austin: yep
i've actually read that boorstin book
Blake: i don't know how it quite relates, but i think it's certainly true that as a culture, our experience with a higher reality has gone away from religion, and away from art, and into this weirdo postmodern circus of voyeurism and pseudo-reality
Austin: well there's the idea that religion kept too many things hidden, and that art only hinted at dark, vulgar things
everything was innuendo
or in religion's case not mentioned
now we can see people being nasty and up front about their problems and networks are calling it "art!" and maybe it makes people more comfortable with "art"?
i don't know if that made sense
but like maybe people felt a separation between their actual like and art that they don't feel with pseudo-reality
Blake: not quite
Austin: or just that we, as a society, don't want to contemplate a higher plane? which would really depress me
slap me when I don't make sense
(btw: you should write something for that Opal Menthal contest for TMN)
Blake: I can't slap you until you come to visit.
by the way i might post this on the blog, titled "a conversation about art between Austin and I, drunk on three margaritas and 7 hours of low-oxygen office air, respectively"
Austin: i love it

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  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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