Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A dresser of vines

No one could have been more surprised than I when when the grapevine we planted a few years back began producing bunches of grapes.  There is hardly anything more simple and gratifying than having fruit ripe for the taking growing around one's back patio.

I should have known, of course, that nature is rarely so benign.  A warning was given a few weeks earlier--the bag of peanuts for the mountain jays having been regularly vandalized in the pantry, I was sure the dogs were the culprits.  But one Sunday afternoon the burglar's daring undid him.  The dogs cornered a squirrel under a living room work table, cheeks stuffed with peanuts who, after a merry chase with broom and hounds, made his way out unscathed.  A larcenist from the wild was in our midst.  This being late summer, our screenless open windows left us defenseless.

I would have probably been unaware of the little critter's presence that Sunday afternoon had it not been for his distinctive distress cry, something very like a smoke alarm whose battery is reaching the end of its life, an abrupt, high-pitched squeal sounding about every four seconds.  A few days later I heard that same sound eminating from an old decrepit gas grill in the back.  Sure enough, Oliver had cornered the little squirrel behind the rusing propane tank.  Around the little thief were, not peanuts, but grapes.  He had found the grapevine, and has been dining on it ever since.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Los teologos

In his short story of the same name, Jorge Luis Borges lampoons the sort of theological niceness for which I have praised St. Gregory in the previous post. The particular controversy out of which his story develops is the fortuitous survival of a page from the City of God:

"...pero en el corazón de la hoguera, entre la ceniza, perduró casi intacto el libro duodécimo de la Civitas Dei, que narra que Platón enseñó en Atenas que, al cabo de los siglos, todas las cosas recuperarán su estado anterior, y él, en Atenas, ante el mismo auditorio, de nuevo enseñará esa doctrina."

Now I have owned a copy of this story, and The City of God, in some form, since the late 1970's. I have also read enough that I should have doubted any assertion, especially on the part of St. Augustine, that Plato taught the eternal recurrence of all things. But, oddly enough, it didn't occur to me until recently to look up the reference. When I did I found in the twelfth book was this:

"Absit autem a recta fide, ut his Salomonis uerbis illos circuitus significatos esse credamus, quibus illi putant sic eadem temporum temporaliumque rerum uolumina repeti, ut uerbi gratia, sicut isto saeculo Plato philosophus in urbe Atheniensi et in ea schola, quae Academia dicta est, discipulos docuit, ita per innumerabilia retro saecula multum quidem prolixis interuallis, sed tamen certis, et idem Plato et eadem ciuitas et eadem schola idemque discipuli repetiti et per innumerabilia deinde saecula repetendi sint. Absit, inquam, ut nos ista credamus."

The words of Solomon are the familiar assertion of nothing new under the sun. And, on examination, there is, in fact, no assertion that Plato taught an eternal recurrence, but merely that some so taught, giving Plato's continual eternal return to Athens as a rather dramatic picture of that doctrine.

So what is Borges up to here? It could be a simple mistake, or a little poetic license; his assertion is indisputably more colorful that Augustine's mere example, and Borges is a master of dramatizing the esoteric. Or it could, perhaps, be in line with the resolution of his plot. The rivalry between the two theologians, Aureliano of Aquilea and Juan of Panonia, leads to the latter's death, insofar as he fails to see that his refutation of eternal recurrence as insufficiently distanced from the heresy du jour, the the assertion of a mirror-opposition of things heavenly to things earthly. A little muddiness, Borges suggests, is not necessarily a bad thing, even if it impermissably "insinuaría una confusión de la mente divina."

It is a derivative kind of fiction, depending for its effect upon the passage and increasing incomprehensibility of the form being imitated. But there are lines and passages that have a great beauty, apart, even from their literal coherence: "En Rusaddir predicó el anacrónico sermón Luz de las luces encendida en la carne de un réprobo."