Where Pascal metaphorically wagering meets Borges bird-watching

Imagine that as a young person you once had a conversation with a close friend in which you made a wager on God’s existence. One of you argued for God’s existence, the other against. The wager went like this: one of you is to live his life as if God exists; the other is to live his life as if God does not exist. The two of you would meet regularly over the course of time to compare notes, but the wager could only be decided if you both lived into old age, at which point the winner of the wager, you both agreed, would be obvious.

This is the sort of proposition that sometimes informs novels. Pascal handles the matter more briefly, in one of his thoughts (Pensees, #233), in the form of a dialog. It is an either or proposition, one that we are existentially bound to, and it may very well be our freedom that is being wagered; yet Pascal says we have nothing to lose.

Borges, in his essay “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal,” suggests that for Pascal, uncertainty produced anxiety, and that he found no solace in his thought that “Nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Borges brings to our attention an alternative translation based on Pascal’s notes. Apparently, Pascal had started to write “Nature is a fearful sphere….” Borges points out that Pascal’s sphere is a metaphor, and that “It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.”

In Borges’s “Argumentum Ornithologicum,” he argues for the existence of God. Closing his eyes, he envisions a small flock of birds, around ten birds in number, but they quickly disappear, and he’s uncertain exactly how many birds he saw in his vision. To him, the exact number “is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.” The exact number of birds that Borges saw is known to God.

Pascal was a mathematician, a logician, clearly interested in the existential predicament of man; Borges was a poet. They both tested the existence of God by living their lives as if He existed. It may matter not God’s existence if His existence is not evident to us; it does matter how we live our lives, for which there is existential evidence, if none other, and who is able to prove this, wins the wager.

Hank Williams sings Huck Finn

“At the center of liberal education,” Northrop Frye gives us in “Ethical Criticism,” the second essay in “Anatomy of Criticism,” an attempt to create a science of literary theory, “something surely ought to get liberated” (p. 93). So what gets liberated?

“Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels,” Frye says. “Literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally: the forms of literature can no more exist outside literature than the forms of sonata and fugue and rondo can exist outside music” (p. 97). The writer is not alone, after all. In fact, “the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (p. 97).

Not being alone means belonging to a community. Frye calls this “social aspect” of poetry archetype, by which he means “a typical or recurring image…which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience. And as the archetype is the communicable symbol, archetypal criticism is primarily concerned with literature as a social fact and as a mode of communication. By the study of conventions and genres, it attempts to fit poems into the body of poetry as a whole” (p. 99).

We find a working example of Frye’s subject in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a hit song by Hank Williams, written in 1949, and since covered by numerous musicians across the musical spectrum, the original lyrics often amplified, or augmented, (the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has recorded instrumental versions on “Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian”; and “Ghost Town”).

But what has all this got to do with Huckleberry Finn? In chapter I of Mark Twain’s novel, we find Huck, worn out by the parlor room evening with the widow and Miss Watson, alone in his room, trying “to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.” Hank removes Huck’s superstition and softens the tone, but the sentiment remains: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.”

So what’s so liberating? The knowledge that you are not alone, for one thing. We are encouraged by Borges, in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” to suggest both that Huck is a precursor to Hank, and that Hank changes our reading of Huck: “…the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. …The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (Labyrinths, p. 201).