Borges and I

(The following story, and the story embedded within the story are both fiction.
The poem is my own          –JJM
)

I’ve been reading the Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.  “Suggestive” is quite an understatement, and that’s as it should be, for such a fraught topic.  Children know details from the life of someone who died before they were born. Sometimes it was far away, in another culture speakig a different language.  The parents had no connection, no way they might have known through ordinary channels of communication. A two-year-old who broke into Spanish to describe the bayonet combat that killed her alter-ego, Miguel, in the Civil War in 1938.  A boy with nightmares about trains and a jagged birthmark on his scalp, at just the site where a small boy had suffered a fatal gash when his schoolbus was run down by a freight train in Lamont, Alberta 1960

I try to make a coherent story of reincarnation, but I can’t.  It’s not just that there are too many souls nowadays compared to all the people who have lived in the past. That problem could be remedied by animals who are promoted (?) via transmigration into our booming, rapacious species.  But most people (myself included) don’t come into the world manifestly laden with baggage from a previous life. Rather, Jung’s collective unconscious rings true for me. Just as we carry genes inherited from a thousand distinct ancestors (counting back just ten generations) it seems to me we may come into the world bearing the legacies and stories and passions of so many bygone souls.

No, I can let the Twenty Cases knock me off my chair, and still conclude that one-to-one reincarnation is the exception.  If we credit the channeled wisdom of great sages from every mystical and shamanic tradition, we will be open to the precept that our souls are buds from one Oversoul. We break off and experience the tortured life of separation for one short stint, then we return to the Oversoul.  

We come into this world awash with tears,
Mourning our incipient separation—
And soon we age and leave it, mired in fears,
So loathe to part with individuation.

The waves that crash, the foam atop the seas,
Disguise the ocean, fathomless, profound—
And when that water splinters into me’s,
Myriad ephemeral droplets abound
And frolic in a mist one glorious trice
Fall terror-bound back in the womb, coalescing,
Rejoin the life that once was all they knew…

Perhaps our fear of change provides a clue
Why human arts nor nature’s quite suffice
To sustain appreciation of our blessing.

As a logical being, as a student of the sages, I find it easy to accept this thesis.  But it flies in the face of my experience. What can it mean to combine souls? Maybe it would be easier to accept if i were schizophrenic, or if I were subject to dissociative psychology.  But as I am, I go through life thinking I’m one person, separate from you, quite separate even from my brother and my wife, and all the sages in history are hard put to convince me otherwise.  And isn’t it exactly my felt experience that this philosophical speculation is supposed to account?

I’ve read about mirror neurons, and sure, I know what empathy feels like.  When you are flailing and screaming because you stubbed your toe, an echo of your pain runs through me, but it’s pretty abstract, pretty distant compared to a stubbed toe of my own.  

“We are all one” comes from revered sources, from Lao Tsze to Jill Bolte Taylor.  It’s what I want to believe, but it seems so far away. How can I climb into this experience of wholeness and unity and dissolution individuality?  How can I make it my own?

If I were an anthropologist, maybe I would arrange to spend a year in an indigenous community where people feel closer to each other and closer to nature as a result of their cultural heritage.   If I had more faith in psychopharmacology, I might try psychedelic drugs. But I’ve had a lifelong fear of any kind of chemical meddling with my CNS. If I knew a guru who could grant me shaktipat, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask, but I am too proud to be anyone’s disciple, another soft spot in my temperament.  Meditation? I’ve been doing it for years, and swear by the gifts it has dispensed, but cosmic consciousness has not been among them (for me).  Meditation has been a rich but lonely pursuit.

I’m a writer.  Epiphany! Maybe I can find a path into merged consciousness through writing a story.  I’m thinking of Borges. He’s the one who could evoke a whole world in a 4-page tour de force of his imagination.  I’ll become Borges for the day.  I’ll channel Borges, and I’ll write a story about…about a consciousness that becomes entangled with another someone’s consciousness.

Chang Yun is a student in Tianjin’s largest public high scool.  It’s 2007, and the whole country is brimming with pride over the coming Beijing Olympics.  They see it as a rite of passage, a benchmark that says China has arrived in the developed world, with the infrastructure to host a multinational event in style.  It will be, above all, a media event that changes perceptions of China forever. Twenty years ago, China was one of the most backward countries in the world, with 95% of the population engaged in subsistence farming.  Now China is hi-tech factory to the world, exporting more manufactured goods than the next seven nations combined. The rocket fuel that has propelled China from rice paddies to Superpower Heir Apparent was individual competition.  

Yun is the fastest swimmer that any of his coaches has seen.  He is raced against tag teams of the next fastest kids just so he can be prodded forward by someone alongside him, competition to bring out his best.  In the Hebei Provincial competitions, he finishes nearly half a length ahead of his nearest competitor, and he does it in Backstroke, Breast stroke, Butterfly and Freestyle, more comfortable with any of them than the boys who specialized in one favorite stroke.

It certainly seems that the Olympics are Yun’s destiny.  No one can stop him. He is buoyed by the hope of his great nation; and, true to the stereotype, he knows how to work.  Two hours in the pool each morning, three more after school lets out before dinner. Sprints and repeated sprints. His lungs grow so large he can cover 50 meters before he has to take his first breath.  Endurance swims of 10K without a break become a routine. Lap after hypnotic lap for consistency of form. Like a Tai Ji master, or like a machine, he performs every stroke alike, photographically perfect replicates.  Exactly two breaths, four pulls from his right arm and five from his left brings him each time to approach the wall for an optimal flip turn, and he is off for the next round.

That summer, a year before the Olympics, the Central Government in Beijing dispatches China’s best coaches to Tianjin to work with him.  But he baffles them. He is a phenomenon of nature, they say. His form is already so perfect, his times so fast–and regularly chipping off a few tenths to surpass his own benchmark.  They are afraid to change anything, afraid they might derail the vehicle of China’s promise.

What can go wrong?

What can go wrong is Michael Phelps.  Training at the same 39o of latitude, 12 time zones away (in either direction), Phelps is 15 cm taller than Chang Yun.  Each of his flat, open hands pulls a column of water 225 square centimeters in cross-section, compared to Yun’s 182.  Phelps is such a natural swimmer that, as rumor has it, he can hold his edge with a mere 90 minutes workout in the pool each day.  Yun is not training to race with the boys in the Hebei Provincials. He is not training to lead the Chinese swim team. He is training to take on Michael Phelps.

Along with big business and media contracts, spying is also a part of Olympic culture.  T minus six months, and Yun’s average time for 100 m freestyle in practice is a full second behind Phelps.  Both athletes vary considerably from one trial to the next, so that Yun at his best iss faster than Phelps on an off-day.  Yun’s coach sees this as cause for hope, but it is not in his nature to leave anything to chance.

A phone call, a whisper down the chain of command, and funding comes through from Beijing to engage Franz Seidlen, to pay him whatever it might take to bring the legendary German swimming coach to Hebei for half a year.   Seidlen was an engineer before he was a coach. The subtle innovations he has introduced to competitive swimming have been recognized and adopted the world over, and the whole sport is said to be an astounding 2.4% faster than it had been with the pre-Seidlen ideals of form and technique.  Discipline is his middle name, but many coaches can be inspiring taskmasters. What sets Seidlen apart is a detailed knowledge of anatomy, and an uncanny ability to identify the individual modifications that can turn anyone’s genetic endowment to best advantage.

No one is surprised when Seidlen arrives in Tianjin carrying a life-size map of Yun’s body plan, which he has already studied in every detail.  No one is surprised when he installs underwater videography to film Yun in motion. But it raises eyebrows when Seidlen hangs a picture of Phelps on the wall next to the pool.   As time goes on, Phelps’s pictures joins Yun in the locker room, in the wallpaper of Yun’s cell phone, and finally on his bedroom wall.

T minus three months, an effigy of Phelps arrives to swim alongside Yun.  A product of Italian artists, German engineering and Chinese manufacture, this state-of-the-art robot bridges the uncanny valley, at once to frighten and inspire Yun as nothing else can.  The robot does not actually propel itself through the pool with perfectly-coordinated arm and leg motions, but it moves arms and legs in a form that is convincing enough through the splashes, and the variable-speed propeller can be programmed to anticipate Phelps’s swimming pace. Training alongside “Phelps” becomes the core of Yun’s daily routine.

T minus two months, and the pace and regimen of Yun’s training are beginning to seem inhuman.  One weekend, he attends a party with school buddies, falls ill and misses five days of practice.  Seidlen brings Yun a box of little pills. “Prolintane” does not have a translation in his English-Chinese dictionary, but all Yun’s 17 years have taught him to trust his teachers.  His strokes feel longer now, and the laps feel shorter. It is easier to swim long hours without losing concentration. It is easier to draw forth motivation for each final sprint.

He has strange dreams.  Phelps has moved into Yun’s psyche as a constant companion.  Sometimes they are buddies, riding bikes together through the Trianjin traffic.  Yun dreams he is in a boxing ring, sparring with Phelps. He lands a punch, knocks Phelps out, but it is Yun who falls unconscious to the floor.

As the summer approaches, the Olympic competition itself has begun to take on the aura of a dream. Yun no longer distinguishes his anticipation from reality, his dreams from accomplished fact.  Seidlen encourages him to repeat as a mantra, 我已经取得胜利, “I have already triumphed.”  The attention and publicity add to his sense of unreality.  Certainly, it is not he in whom these people are interested.  Yun is unmoored, carried downstream, no longer aware who he is, no longer a living agent with will of his own.  At least, it feels that way.

It is in the final runoffs of the 800-meter free-style that he is paired with Phelps in the same heat.  Michael Phelps is not a robot but a boy like himself, gawky, diffident and self-conscious when he is not in the water.  Michael looks right past him, over the top of his head. But then, a double-take. He turns to Yun and their eyes meet a long moment.  I have known you before. We have been close, perhaps in a past life.

The starting block, the gun that launches them in the water…it has all been lived already too many times to be regarded as a feature of the present. Yun is swimming the way he has always swum, every stroke a perfect clone.  He is aware only that his heart is pounding with an unusual insistence.

Then, approaching the fourth lap flip turn, something happens that shakes Yun out of his trance.  Nine strokes has always been 9 strokes. But this time, he is at the wall in 8½. This is good. He knows it means he has been swimming faster than he has ever swum in his life.  This is terrifying. The wall is too far away, and then it is too close. His legs, scrunched up against the wall, offer a slightly stronger push, but not enough to make up for the time it has taken to close that extra half meter, to dive in a way that is ever so imperceptibly unsmooth.  Precious hundredths have been lost, Yun knows. What can this do to his rhythm, his confidence, his breathing? Yes, his breathing. With the unaccustomed turn, Yun’s face is under water one full stroke longer than his perfect habit has come to expect. Oxygen efficiency is Yun’s trump card, his one advantage over Michael.  Oxygen is what Yun needs, and now his straining muscles feel the lack of oxygen like a flooded Mercedes diesel on a January morning. Yun’s discipline, earned in 100,000 laps of clockwork precision, would be the envy of any Zen master, and now his muscles are screaming for air. He focuses his intention on directing every red blood cell to those shoulder muscles that are even now issuing their non-negotiable demand.

It was in that moment that the miracle occurred, the mircale toward which this narrative has been directed, the miracle that this story’s author needs to imagine if he is to come to terms with Cosmic Consciousness and a personal understanding of transmigration of souls.    

Yun’s focus was complete.  Or maybe he lost focus. Or maybe he only dreamed because his brain lacked sufficient oxygen to support a waking self.  But as Yun related it to me more than three years after that contest, he became Michael. His awareness seemed familiar, his self undoubtably his own.  But the sensations, the nerve signals were from Phelps’s body, not his own. He swam with the same drive, the same passion, the conviction that his people had invested their dreams in this race, in his opportunity, in his destiny to stage an upset victory for the glory of all China.  His people expected him to win and it was not an option to let them down.

The pace, the glide of the water, the splash were all perfectly familiar to him.  But the race itself was now almost effortless. With this smooth-shaven, extra-long body, these extra-large hands like canoe paddles in the water, he was gliding faster than he ever knew, but there was no pain, no screaming desire to let go and rest, no struggle to suppress the desire for more air, more air, more air.  Compared to the beginning of the race–even compared to a hard sprint at the end of a training day–this was a breeze, a piece of cake. Chang/Phelps glided forward with the grace of a slalom skier.

Of course, he doubted that it was real.  The thing that convinced him–Yun spoke more slowly and deliberately when he got to this part of the story–he could see the pool wall by his right side.  He had entered the race in Lane #3, but here he was in Lane #6, Michael’s lane. Randomly he remembered that the wall itself offered a theoretical advantage of 3 miliseconds per lap, and now as Michael he was taking that advantage.

And inside all this strangeness, did it occur to Yun that he might relax just a bit and throw the race to his other self three lanes over?  Or with this body, so much longer and stronger than his own,and yet so much less accustomed to real work, real discipline, he might achieve new records?  

The last thing Yun remembers about those six minutes of merged identity was repetition of the proverb 落英缤纷, literally “flower petals fall like snowflakes”, but its meaning translates roughly as sic transit gloria mundi.  For the first time, he was allowing himself to consider that just a few years hence, both he and Michael would pass into history, their best glory behind them, while others their age were just beginning to aspire to a future of open-ended ambition.  Life is long.

Looking back in retrospect, Yun made a strange admission to me.  “It would have been very difficult to act differently from the way I did.  While I was inside Michael’s body, I had an intimate familiarity with Michael’s habits, his passions, his ways of thought.  You will want to know, did I have free will? Could I choose what to do with my limbs as I do at this moment in this body? I felt sure that yes, I could.  But the habits were stronger than I ever imagined. I had Michael’s pace and coordination, not my own. I had the thoughts that Michael thought. I saw his girlfriend, beaming with pride for me at the race’s end.  The gold medal that I saw in my future was Michael’s gold medal, not my own. In the split between body and soul, we imagine that thoughts go with the soul, but I learned that day it is not so. Except by focused and intense assertion of will, thoughts arise from the body, from which they are too often adopted without question as ‘my own’.”

I stayed awake far too long into the night, I know, propelled in an accelerating torrent of words toward this ending I had devised.  Staring at an LED screen, my eyes became bleary, but my fingers moved on. My sight became grey, but the words continued to come, each ensuing paragraph more amd more like accounts I’ve heard of automatic writing.  Mozart taking the Lord’s dictation. Jane Roberts or–dare I mention Pesoa? whose multiple personalities ought by rights to have been the souls of my story, in preference to Borges.

I stopped writing not because there was nothing more to write, but because I was startled–startled and soothed, paradoxically–as my sight gave out completely.  The light above my bed was still on. The computer screen, presumably, still displayed my story. But in my eyes there was only black. I thought it best to leave off my story and succumb to the hour.  Sleep came almost instantly.

I don’t know how long it was when I awoke from a dream.  Probably not very long, if my experience is any guide. Many of my most vivid dreams occur just minutes after dozing off.  

I was in the Library of Babel, with its endless expanse of hexagonal rooms, packed like a honeycomb in every direction.  Every book was here, every possible book, every permutation and combination of the 26 capital and small letters of the Latin alphabet plus 8 punctuations, indexed just as Kurt Gödel would have numbered them, in alphabetical sequence not by title but by their full content.  They were printed on 80# paper in Braille, titles and bindings in Braille as well, and this caused each volume to be bulkier than books of visible print. The fingers do not have so fine a resolution as the retina, but touch carries an immediate meaning, palpable, if you will, that readers of print books can never know.  An infinity of large volumes or of small, I thought, is all the same infinity.

The library contained, as I say, every possible volume, but not with a blind democracy as to importance.  Shelf upon shelf of nonsense was represented by one copy of each distinct text; but the important works of literary value were there in multiple copies, so many copies, enough copies that it was possible to locate them and single them out.  Homer and Milton and Didymus of Alexandria, Helen Keller, and then Borges himself. So few books they left to us, but so many copies of each here in “his” library.

My fingers touched and could read.  More than this, they knew the words before I touched them.  How pleasant it was to run my fingers over the bindings, reading the disparate contents of each volume.  The irresistible title, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. By the time I found the story called Water Torture, I retained no capacity for surprise.  Line for line, word for word, Borges had written my story before I had. This man’s intuitive imagination could gauge the future thousands of years hence; it is hardly a cause for surprise that he anticipated the Beijing Olympics by a mere half century.  No wonder it felt like “automatic writing” in my somnolent, semiconscious state. No doubt I was remembering a story lodged deep in my subconscious, which I had read exactly 50 years earlier, as a college student.

The remainder of that long night, I slept the sleep of the just, or perhaps the sleep of the dead. When day returned, I found that my eyesight had been restored.  Curiously, I had never doubted it would. But just in the waking, I recalled one more dream, one more connection to Borges. I was in his bed, drawn into sexual union with the Master.  I knew that this act of infidelity would rip apart my marriage, bring down my reputation, leave in tatters the life of integrity that I had so carefully constructed. Pulled by my body, I had no choice, but had I the will to decide in that moment, I would have judged it a fair bargain, trading all I had assembled by my staid reliability for this one orgasmic moment of union.

“Being an agnostic means all things are possible.”
— Jorge Luis Borges

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