Kim posting Stories in Urban Spaces and my happening to be re-reading Borges (in the Andrew Hurley translation), made me go back to 'The Garden of Forking Paths' (1941).
Borges' narrator, Yu Tsun, is the great-grandson of Ts'ui Pen, a 'governor of Yunan province … who renounced all temporal power in order to write a novel containing more characters than the Hung Lu Meng and construct a labyrinth in which all men would lose their way'. Ts'ui Pen is murdered after 13 years of work on these labours, and what survived was a 'novel (that) made no sense' — and 'no one ever found the labyrinth'. Early in the story, Yu Tsun, on the run, reflects that 'all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me.' Choosing a name from a phone book (the reason for which choice only becomes fully clear at the end of the story), he finds himself at the house of the famous Sinologist, Stephen Albert. Improbability is heaped on improbability (after all, this is anti-literature, no matter that it is also literature of exquisite skill, intelligence and inventiveness), and Stephen Albert is not only intimate with the life and work of Ts'ui Pen but has, he believes, cracked the secret of both novel and labyrinth: they are one and the same. Ts'ui Pen had left a fragment of a letter: 'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths'. Stephen Albert explains to Yu Tsun:
'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.' Almost instantly, I saw it — the garden of forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'several futures (not all)' suggest to me the image of a forking in time, rather than in space. A full rereading of the book confirmed my theory. In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses — simultaneously — all of them. He creates, thereby, 'several futures', several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. That is the explanation for the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger knocks at the door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes — Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can both live, they can both be killed, and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's novel, all the outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for further bifurcations. Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend.
… 'The Garden of Forking Paths' is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts'ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.
Life as layered narrative, diachronically and synchronically; shared and individual, typical/general and unique — knowledge fundamental to our sense of being human. The advent of technologies which could allow us to interact with place and time raises questions that are profoundly old. (Kim's questions towards the end of her post made me think of urban plays, from medieval pageants to contemporary community projects — The Dillen, for example.) The extension of all this, in and through new technology, into new "theatres" of play, entertainment and education … The possibilities for grass-roots up development, for social and communal initiatives which bypass official or authorised pictures of the polis … 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' (Borges, 'A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain', 1941).
But in Borges, 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' suggests a weariness and meaninglessness. (Ecclesiastes, 12.12: 'Of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh'.) This melancholy may even embrace the world. 'The Library of Babel', 1941, conceives of a universe, the Library, as 'unlimited but periodic': 'If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder — which, repeated, becomes order: the Order'. In this story, the librarian finds this an 'elegant hope'; this reader finds the thought dispiriting.
Will a glut of gorgeous visualisations and interactive, highly social "games" deepen our melancholy — too much meaning to be finally meaningful? Or, instead, will the glamour of technology encourage us to forget and to take again the picture for the world? I doubt there will be anything new in the range of answers we come up with to either of these questions.
In 1984, Harold Fisch published A Remembered Future and wrote of how art can give us 'the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled'. More recently, Heaney has written of how 'We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work … is the mind's capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity' ('Joy or Night', 1990, in The Redress of Poetry, 1995). New ways of presenting layered narratives, as yet but 'tiny glimmers' (Kim's phrase), will acquire their maturity as art when they allow us to conceive a new plane of regard for ourselves as both unique and typical, simultaneously liberating us from the lonely egotism of Yu Tsun, where 'everything that truly happens, happens to me', and the merely 'unlimited but periodic'.