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A Pretentious Dialogue on Borges and Judas and a Philosophy of Fiction (Part 1 of ?)

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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.]


    Anonymous Mike 

    In a very real sense of causality there is no A to B to C. There is only A. It is our perspective necessarily rooted in time and space that makes it appear otherwise.

    Also a straight-fact account of reality does not exist. The facts are always chosen and for a specific reason to tell a specific story.

    With that being said, I guess I don't see the conundrums and conflict in the story as a problem. Judas was BOTH a villain and a saint just like every human being that has ever lived.

    Anonymous Ganesh 

    I just wanted to let u know that the customization that you have made to your blog looks cool.

    Anonymous kyle 

    three things:

    1. i like mike's interpretation (that, i think, is what he's doing), though i do agree with his tiny sketch of causality (A theory or B theory, mike?)

    2. Borges, by all indications available to me, is a gnostic christian. thus, blake, your discussion about actual/literary causality becomes very interesting. gnostics, i'm sure you all know, believe the physical ("real") world is evil, created by a demiurge (the god of the old testament). i think borges is just painting (as he usually does, without spilling much of his own conviction) a thought-provoking portrait of gnostic christian ironically still attached to/struggling with a dantean worldview (at least, the overt "dante-as-third-testament attitude runs rampant in three versions), borges probably considers himself a more right-headed follower of the unfortunate runeberg

    3. have you guys ever read tristram shandy? the idea of capturing life-causality with literary-causality is an overarching theme--the popular way of describing it is that tristram, in telling his life story, never gets around to describing his own birth

    4. with that in mind, i'm currently reading _the possibility of an island_ by houellebecq (elementary particles will probably end up being my favorite novel from the 1990's), which (at this point) seems to be touching upon similar themes

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  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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