My high school senior year English teacher was kind of an odd fellow, though I now believe he relished (and even cultivated) the "wacky English teacher" status. He was, I think, both more and less weird than he appeared to be. In some ways, he went well beyond wacky, as when he would routinely lead us to surprisingly dark corners of his personal life. (Some of his stories were so creepy that I'm not even going to allude to their facts obliquely.) On the last day of school, he presented me with his "70s award", earned by my recognition of his classroom references to lawn darts and Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. (The award itself was a Rush album.)
At the time, I don't think anyone knew what to make of this lonely but apparently driven instructor, so little did he align with our established mental archetypes. I'm sure some of my friends who disliked him then dislike him now, but I involuntarily developed a certain undeniable, single-nod respect for the man's candor and cultural awareness. (He's one of those guys who hits the shops every Tuesday after work to get first crack at the new books, CDs and DVDs.) He also commuted daily from the heart of Seattle to our school's almost laughably dumpy suburb; I didn't quite see the significance of his life-work location gap then, but I see it now.
One of my major takeaways from that year was an appreciation of Alex Cox's Death and the Compass, a shabbily elaborate Mexican TV movie based on Jorge Luis Borges' short story of the same name. We watched it during our extended unit on Borges — this teacher loved him some Borges — the culmination of which saw each of us give a 40-minute solo talk on one of his tales. My assignment was the so-so "The Circular Ruins", though I would've preferred "Funes the Memorious".
Thus, "Funes" was the first text I turned to when I declared it time to return to another high school memory: the Spanish language. Despite taking nine straight years of Español in elementary, middle and high school, I never reached what you'd call proficiency. (This lends huge credence to the idea that one can't learn unless one wants to learn, which idea itself explains what people tend to think is astonishingly poor performance of educational institutions.) I certainly never reached the skill level needed to comprehend a writer as cerebral as Borges in his native language, but hey. I want to read Borges stories with all the original linguistic nuances, and I don't want to read the Spanish equivalent of Sweet Valley High, so as far as what I'm using to brush up my language abilities, I'm over a barrel.
It's also worth noting that my motivation to learn foreign languages transitioned from weak (or nearly nonexistent) to strong when I realized that, hey, learning foreign languages doesn't just mean learning to speak foreign languages. It can also mean learning to read foreign languages! To expand one's own literary horizons! To achieve closer engagement with one's favorite works! To improve one's writing skills in any language by observing examples of others! This realization changed up my linguistic worldview in a big way. Spoken French, for instance, is confusing, sounds like hell and sits just this side of useless. (As Cecil Adams memorably put it, "French is the primary language of maybe 114 million, including such outposts of world commerce as Haiti, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso, and is essential chiefly to reading menus at Le Cirque.") But written French? There's all kind of neato books in that, and I'm not just talking about the man dipping the cookie.
Film played no small part in my conversion, either; at least half my favorite movies — Taste of Cherry, Hana-Bi, Solaris, Ran — aren't in English, and I started learning Korean solely because of Korean cinema. So I guess my interest is less in speaking than in understanding. It long seemed a shame to me, then, that, after all those hours spent conjugating its verbs, the Spanish language was used by no cultures for which I had even the slightest affinity. (Living in the United States, it's easy to get the impression that worldwide Spanish-speaking culture consists entirely of sugar skulls, lucha libre and arduously long variety shows.) Having thought about it, though, that's not true. What of Chile, the Inglaterra of the Sud? What of Argentina, with its heaven-sent chorizo? What about Mexico City, with its hardest-of-hardcore internationalism? What of Borges? What of Borges?
Not having paid a visit to the Spanish language or Borges' concept-heavy stories in over five years, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. "Funes" was a favorite in English, though, so I figured I was on steady ground. The concept in this one is simple: a man who remembers everything. As in the author's other work, the instantiation of this idea carries with it a host of unexpected ramifications. If one can remember and never forget, for instance, one will also forever retain the memories of remembering every memory they have. And with this memory comes a hugely heightened awareness: every vein on a one leaf of the tree outside the window is like its own major world event. Such abilities also lead inexorably into engagement into a variety of crackpot projects, like assigning every number a proper name.
The case of Ireneo Funes, an acquanitance of the story's narrator, is no different. Maybe it's because I had to read extremely slowly and thus noticed more closely and envisioned more vividly — with my eroded Spanish abilities, grinding through the brief text took me hours — but his introduction is awfully evocative:
My first recollection of Funes is quite clear: I see him at dusk, sometime in March or February of the year '84. That year, my father had taken me to spend the summer at Fray Bentos. I was on my way back from the farm at San Francisco with my cousin Bernardo Haedo. We came back singing, on horseback; and this last fact was not the only reason for my joy. After a sultry day, an enormous slate-grey-storm had obscured the sky. It was driven on by a wind from the south; the trees were already tossing like madmen; and I had the apprehension (the secret hope) that the elemental downpour would catch us out in the open. We were running a kind of race with the tempest. We rode into a narrow lane which wound down between two enormously high brick footpaths. It had grown black of a sudden; I now heard rapid almost secret steps above; I raised my eyes and saw a boy running along the narrow, cracked path as if he were running along a narrow, broken wall. I remember the loose trousers, tight at the bottom, the hemp sandals; I remember the cigarette in the hard visage, standing out against the by now limitless darkness. Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to him: "What's the time, Ireneo?" Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo replied: "In ten minutes it will be eight o'clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco." The voice was sharp, mocking.
Years later, Funes falls from a horse and winds up paralyzed. Hearing that the narrator has brought Latin books on a return visit to Fray Bentos, Funes contacts him. The visit to Funes' home is just about as hauntingly described:
Without the least change in his voice, Ireneo bade me come in. He was lying on the cot, smoking. It seems to me that I did not see his face until dawn; I seem to recall the momentary glow of the cigarette. The room smelled vaguely of dampness. I sat down, and repeated the story of the telegram and my father's illness.
[ ... ]
Ireneo began by enumerating, in Latin and Spanish, the cases of prodigious memory cited in the Historia Naturalis: Cyrus, king of the Persians, who could call every soldier in his armies by name; Mithridates Eupator, who administered justice in the twenty-two languages of his empire; Simonides, inventory of mnemotechny; Metrodorus, who practised the art of repeating faithfully what he heard once. With evident good faith Funes marvelled that such things should be considered marvellous. He told me that previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been - like any Christian - blind, deaf-mute, somnambulistic, memoryless. (I tried to remind him of his precise perception of time, his memory for proper names; he paid no attention to me.) For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything - almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. A little later he realized that he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now, his perception and his memory were infallible.
I won't launch into any great précis, but the gist is this: Funes talks to the narrator all night, describing what it's like to live with this "affliction", scare quotes because Funes himself considers it an invaluable superpower to be so, er, memorious. How he chooses to employ his memory says different:
He told me that toward 1886 he had devised a new system of enumeration and that in a very few days he had gone before twenty-four thousand. He had not written it down, for what he once meditated would not be erased. The first stimulus to his work, I believe, had been his discontent with the fact that "thirty-three Uruguayans" required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a species of mark; the last were very complicated. . . . I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. I said that to say three hundred and sixty-five was to say three hundreds, six tens, five units: an analysis which does not exist in such numbers as The Negro Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket. Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me.
[ ... ]
Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an individual name; Funes had once projected an analogous idiom, but he had renounced it as being too general, too ambiguous. In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. He determined to reduce all of his past experience to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define numerically.
Today, Funes would probably be recognized as some stripe of autistic savant, possessed of neither the inclination nor the skill to interact with people but able to perform the wildest raw mental feats without a droplet of sweat. It's hard to say whether Borges is getting across the idea of an intellectual miracle going unappreciated because he's crippled and relegated to a cot in Fray Bentos — which is a hamlet even today, let alone as it was in the 1880s — or whether the story is more about how too much acuity in one dimension comes at the almost total compromise of the whole. As the narrator says, "Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details", so the second interpretation seems more plausible. (Quoth Nietzsche, "He is a thinker; that means he makes things simpler than they are.") But with Borges, it's never so clear-cut.