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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Architectural traits of the immortals

by Garrett Rowlan

If we could live forever, the tendency to evolve, to embellish, and to complicate would lead us over time to construct places and palaces that would be unintended metaphors for our own protean thoughts: labyrinthine mazes, winding and unceasing, structures out of René Magritte and M.C. Escher.

Or so one would gather by reading two stories by Jorge Luis Borges, "The Immortal," and "The Library at Babel." They suggest the architectural prodigies of those who had all of time to make civic impressions of their unceasing thoughts. "The Immortal" is about a man who discovers eternal life near an abandoned city built by vanished Gods. "The Library at Babel" is a monologue by an unnamed patron of an endless library which is its own universe. To contrast these two stories, what "The Immortal" is to humans, "The Library at Babel" is to an institution. Both stories depict entities that cannot die.

In "The Immortal" a deserter from the Roman army in the time of Diocletian travels to a distant land with cave-dwelling Troglodytes, a fantastic city nearby, and a polluted river whose waters, imbibed, gives him immortality. Having drunk the water, he visits the city, whose round shape suggests an enormous arena, by going through an underground labyrinth, a "vast, indistinct, circular chamber" which eventually leads to an enormous structure with "dead-end corridors, high unattainable windows, portentous doors which led to a cell or pit, incredible inverted stairways whose steps and balustrades hung downwards." In short, the traveler steps into a lithograph from Escher (A glimpse at Escher's "Relativity" shows an almost direct visualization of Borges's notion of the Immortal City), with an assist from the intricate prisons of Piranesi.

The traveler senses that the work was the effort of insane, vanished gods. Later, he learns that it was the Troglodytes who built the crazy "city" after having destroyed the original metropolis whose renown had attracted the traveler. (Something in this story, the distortion that distance brings, recalls Kafka's "The Great Wall of China.") The building of the "irrational city" was considered a last act of pure speculation. Though we cannot see this immortal city, we can deduce some architectural tendencies from it and from the labyrinth below it.

The first is repetition. In the labyrinth, "There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth…led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. I do not know the total number of these chambers…" Whether the Troglodytes or some "Gods" built the labyrinth, its regular circularity suggests the crystallization of eternal return set into stone, much like the unvarying distribution of galleries in Babel's library, where the repetition characterizes the galleries' design and the layout of the books. "If an eternal traveler," Borges writes in the story's penultimate sentence, "were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder." Repetition suggests the inevitable perspective of those who cannot die, who live on and on.

The second architectural trait of immortal construction is a geometrical exactitude. In the underground labyrinth of "The Immortal," this precision is built around the circle, and while we don't know what the original city of the immortals looked like we can infer, by the fact that the incoherent city was "a parody or antithesis" of the original city, that it too had some sort of rational, geometrical qualities. (Perhaps that is why it was destroyed: In time, its symmetry became fearful, incarcerating.) As for the Library at Babel, Borges's story begins, "The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between…" I suspect this geometrical exactitude represents a reduction to essence, a winnowing of space down a basic DNA.

A third trait of immortal architecture is scale. It is large, a grandiosity of presentation, which makes sense. Somehow the idea, say, of an eternal two-bedroom house or shed doesn't sound right. The structures in both these stories have a hint of the fantastic and spectacular. The city in "The Immortal" is built on a "stone plateau" and is full of "fortifications, arches, frontispieces, and forums." One thinks of Magritte, particularly his "Castle of the Pyrenees," a structure built on a large, airborne rock. Similarly, a glimpse up the air shafts in the Library at Babel, which climb and plunge into infinity, is likely to produce feeling of awe, insignificance, and perhaps vertigo. Not to mention mortality, particularly with the passing of falling bodies, which, Borges tell us, is what happens to dead men in the Library: they are pitched over the railings to fall eternally.

In the alternate universe that Borges's Library represents, the Gods have not contented themselves with our universe of planets and stars and space in between, they have glorified their creation with an infinity of shelves and books. Their architecture is a theistic argument. Borges writes, "The universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways…can only be the work of a god." By contrast, "The Immortal" represents a refusal of divine architecture as the immortals abandoned their fantastic city, built a cockeyed structure in its place, and went to live in caves. Thus the crazed construction that Borges's traveler sees is a thumbed nose at the Gods, who have vanished along with their perfect symmetry. "Built structures are sweet," some Troglodyte John Keats might have written, "but those unbuilt are sweeter still."

Borges's structures are unbuilt also, and yet for one, like myself, fond of wandering through libraries and fond of the images of De Chirico, Escher, and Piranesi, these two stories have a particular resonance, especially in the architecture they present, which has for me the remembered pleasure of the head shops of my youth, the fantastic posters on the walls above colored lights and incense, the appurtenances of phantasm, though Borges's stories, read closely and repeatedly, are nearer to the real thing.

Garrett Rowlan is a retired substitute teacher who lives in Los Angeles. He has published about 40 stories and essays, most recently in Map Literary. His essays "Irrealism and the visual arts, "The waking dream: a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled," "Irrealism and ambient music," "Irreal expedition: a review of Zachary Mason's Lost Books of the Odyssey," and "Avatars of the Labyrinth" have appeared previously in irreal (re)views.

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