Borges And The Vikings

In the few succinct pages of ‘The Scandinavian Destiny’, Borges’ makes much of the brevity and realism of Icelandic sagas, concluding, “In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel–the art of Flaubert, the Norman–and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.” In the Eyrbyggja Saga, among the name listings and place namings in the early chapters, some fine examples of ‘brevity and realism’ stand out:

“He came out to Iceland some years after his mother and spent his first winter there with her. Thorolf thought the land which his mother had taken not nearly extensive enough, so he challenged Ulfar the Champion to single combat for the land he owned, Ulfar being old and childless. Ulfar chose to die rather than let himself be bullied by Thorolf, and they fought a duel at Alftafjord. Ulfar was killed and Thorolf wounded in the leg, so he walked with a limp for the rest of his life and got the nickname Twist-Foot. Thorolf took over the land that had belonged to Ulfar and set up house at Hvamm in Thorsardale. He was a very harsh man.”

Such is law in the young colony. That last line is a masterstroke of understatement. What more need be said to establish what sort of a man is Twist-Foot? Here’s another:

“That same autumn Thorstein went to Hoskuld Island to fetch provisions. One evening in the autumn as Thorstein’s shepherd was tending sheep north of Helga Fell, he saw the whole north side of the mountain opened up, with great fires burning inside it and the noise of feasting and clamour over the ale-horns. As he strained to catch particular words, he was able to make out that Thorstein Cod-Biter and his crew were being welcomed into the mountain, and that Thorstein was being invited to sit in the place of honour opposite his father.

“That evening the shepherd told Thorstein’s wife Thora about this apparition. She was deeply disturbed by it and said it could be a foreboding of something very sinister. In the morning some men brought news from Hoskuld Island that Thorstein Cod-Biter had been drowned on a fishing trip. People thought it a bitter loss.

“Thora kept the farm and took on an overseer called Hallvard to help her to run it. She had a son by him, called Mar.”

Where was Hallvard when Cod-biter drowned? Who put him up to it? Enough has been said so that the questions need not even be written. That is the fine art of brevity we find in the modern realism that Borges speaks of. It’s the simple but difficult technique of telling without explaining that is the art of the Story.

What of Borges’ argument that Scandinavians travelled and colonised extraordinarily far and wide (Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, France, North Africa, America) but left barely a trace of themselves on the world’s history and culture? The English have long been a mongrel people. A melting pot of Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and French. This is amply reflected in their magnificently flexible, illogical, ambiguous, idiomatic, badly spelt and ever changing language, not only including words from each of the languages of those peoples, but including multiple words and phrases for saying the same thing. Consider how English speak of animals and meat. The conquering Normans overlaid French words on Anglo-Saxon, but even then the result is not according to a consistent rule: cow becomes beef, sheep becomes either lamb or mutton (one to two), while chicken remains chicken. English speakers find Chinese difficult but it is only because its tones and consonants don’t exist in English, and because of the different writing system. Chinese is much much easier grammatically. All meats, for example, are simply the same word as the animal with the word for meat added to the end: cow-meat, sheep-meat, chicken-meat, etc. With the British empire having had the broadest extent of any empire in history it includes words and expressions from every corner of the globe. Although not entirely conquered, much of England was once a Viking colony, and it was soon after conquered by the descendants of another Viking colony, the Normans. In this sense, at least in part, the Vikings eventually colonised North America, and finally, after a thousand years, colonised the other side of the world, Australia. (In Argentina Borges’s father was half English and they spoke English in the home.) It’s hard not to see something of the tone of the Icelandic sagas in Australia’s frontier wars. Australia has had many waves of immigration since the British one, such that it’s becoming less a British colony and more a colony of the world. Despite the increasing diversity of cultural influences on English, and in Australia, over thousands and hundreds of years, if you go out to a Newcastle pub on Friday night, on either side of the world, you’ll still run into Thorolf Twistfoot.


At breakfast there is a spoon and a bowl. There is Pablo Neruda’s poem on the humble spoon, beginning,

shaped by mankind’s
most ancient hand,
in your design
of metal or wood
we still see
the shape
of the first

Homo Sapiens, meaning ‘Wise Man’, are so called because we have a large brain and make extensive use of language and problem solving, sometimes referred to as the ‘tool using animal’. There is a long history of cybernetics at breakfast as this spoon, a little permanently cupped hand, and the bowl, two cupped hands, enhance my own hands’ control and capacity. Shelley lead to Lovelace, Turing, Shannon, Weiner, Haraway and to neural networks, and here I am now, neural networks, thinking about breakfast. Now an interactivist model of biological systems can be implemented as a certain kind of neural network in such a way that explains free will. That’s another story, but put it this way – if the internal workings are complex such that you cannot predict the output given the input, then the system is, to that extent, ‘free’ of it’s world. If it’s outputs are determined by a combination of inputs and internal states that retain information over time, then it is learning. If it learns to do what is ‘good’ for itself, which we could think of simply as anything that maximises the probability of itself continuing to exist, then it’s exhibiting ‘will’. Now here I am hungry, eating breakfast. It’s a paradox that this need, to eat, which we cannot control, is a precondition of the will to eat and so of our freedom to act in various ways to fulfil that will. Desire. Life is suffering, suffering is desire, desire is illusion.

In the Tokyo museum there is an ancient scroll, a national treasure, called the “Hungry Ghosts” scroll. It depicts ghosts, existing between heaven and hell, whose ‘bellies are large and their necks are thin’, who have an insatiable desire to eat, but are condemned to only eat what disgusts them, dead bodies and faeces, and who can never squeeze enough down their thin throat to satisfy their hunger. That’s why in the movie, Fires On The Plain, the Japanese soldiers during the fall of the Philippines wander the countryside starving, resorting to cannibalism and eating shit. It’s hard to believe that it’s by coincidence then that Pacman is the purest representation of hunger, and so of desire, nothing but a circle with a mouth, that does nothing but constantly eat, and that if you put this icon of hunger next to the other character in the game, it says, ‘Hungry Ghost’. Pacman is the human condition. He is by turns pursued and pursues. Chris Marker says something like that in Sans Soleil about how the Pacman’s fortunes always turn but he always comes a-cropper in the end. In Soseki’s ‘Kusamakura’ the main character reaches an understanding of what art is: a particular instance of suffering, such as a man hauling fish up a mountain in the rain, is just another bad day for that man, but when viewed by someone relaxing in a distant boat it becomes a metaphor for the human condition.

There is more in my breakfast bowl than cornflakes. If not pottery, bowls are often made from Calabashes, a large round fruit, sometimes called a gourd. Some, when growing, are simply round, not elongated, and about the size of a human head, and being smooth and pale, similar to a skull. In the Popul Vuh two brothers disturb the Lords of Death by playing batey with a rubber ball on their roof. From the underworld of Xibalba the Lords of Death send owls to challenge them to a match. When the brothers arrive the treacherous Lords trick them and set tasks they cannot pass. They hang one of the brother’s severed head in a tree. The tree instantly fruits calabashes and nobody can tell which is the head any more. Sensing strong magic the Lords of Xibalba forbid anyone from going near the tree. Lady Blood can’t resist and, disobeying her father, goes to see the tree. When she approaches the tree the skull spits into her palm. In Quiche Maya poetics at this point, there is a three-fold analogy between spit, and the ‘breath’ or ‘word’, which in ancient Mesoamerican texts is depicted as a white spiral emanating from the mouth, and of course semen, because by the power of this spit/word/semen she immaculately conceives. She escapes to the world above and goes to live with her children’s grandmother. Her twin sons eventually discover their father’s batey gaming gear and, although their grandmother forbids it, also disturb the Lords of Death by playing on their roof and are in turn challenged to a match. They plant some corn in their Grandmother’s kitchen, saying so long as it lives they are alive. They pass all the tests the God’s of Death lay down for them, and beat them at the ball game. They know the Xibalban Lords will kill them anyway, so they arrange for it to be done in such a way that they will come back to life. When they are killed, the corn in Grandmother’s house dies. Resurrected as fish, they eventually emerge from the river and, posing as homeless paupers they show off many tricks throughout Xibalba until the fame of their magic act grows and they are called to perform for the Lords of Xibalba. They kill and resurrect a dog and convince the Lords of Death to allow themselves to be killed, on the promise of being resurrected. Once they have killed the Lords, all the Xibalban’s panic and flee. The twins find the tree their father’s skull is in and begin refashioning his face. When it is half complete it speaks to them, telling them that he will live in them and their descendants while they remember his name, Hunahpu, and his words. The twins return above and the corn in their Grandmother’s kitchen is alive.

This story was recited then written down and kept secret by Quiche Mayan’s at a time when recording such myths was punishable by death by the Spanish. It was later written and transcribed to Spanish by a local priest, Ximenez, and the original text lost. This single copy wound it’s way through various collections in the Americas and Europe, disappearing for many years at a time into obscurity and re-appearing again from time to time, but Hunahpu’s words are remembered yet.

Calabash is the name of a princess in a Kanyok variation of the Luba myth. She is so called because when her father broke the Luba king’s cup her mother was given to him as compensation. Her siblings teased her for having a common name while they all had royal names. She later ran away to her homeland and, finding an abandoned salt making set up fell asleep exhausted. There was no royalty at the time, so after her legitimacy had been confirmed by local wise men, she assumed power. She renamed people after other common place things, such as hair ornaments and plantain leaves. In Luba culture they use memory boards, where writing consists of beads of various colours, carvings, shells and nails on a wooden board to aids in the recitation of history and law. Similar writing patterns commonly adorn vessels, such as calabashes. These patterns also are repeated in ritual and fashionable scarring. In particular it’s important for women to adorn themselves with these texts to be ‘cultivated’ in both senses of the word, both civilised and like a field in contrast to the uncut wilderness. Women are stronger than men because men aren’t a strong enough vessel to carry somebody else’s soul. It makes masculine philosophy sound funny, ‘Cogito ergo sum’.

Kanyok is one of about 200 languages in the Congo region, and Luba memory boards only one way of communicating. Talking drums are usually large, the size of a hollowed out log and, like a mouth, have two lips either side of a slit. One lip has a higher pitch than the other. It’s a binary system where a series of combinations of high and low tones correspond to speech. This is effective for the tonal languages of West Africa, which have two tones, one that is more mellow and one that is more sharp and commanding. To Western ears this normally translates into a low and high pitch, though the commanding tone is not necessarily always higher. Because a short message of a word or so could easily be misunderstood as one of many words with that combination of tones (say low high low or 010) messages are made unambiguous by using elaborate phrasing. For example, rather than refer to someone only by name, people are given long epithets. A long combination is much more likely to be unique, and so the message is clear. Drummers also use redundancy to reduce error. Messages are repeated, so that if some information is missing it can be filled in, or if the two instances differ at least it can be identified that there is an error. Similar techniques are used in the transport layer of the internet.

Normally, when you hear someone practising drums you think, “Shut up that bloody racket.” There was one particular day my flatmate started up on his kit upstairs and must have played for half an hour or so. Afterwards he came down and said sorry for the noise, and asked if I could remember any of it because he’d never played like that before or as good as that, but it had all gone out of his head. Even if I could remember I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it, not having any para-diddles. I was the sole witness to the best drum solo ever, and neither me nor the drummer could remember it. The greatest drum solo ever is lost forever. Another metaphor for the human condition.

And that is the meaning of “culture” – it is that part of our experience that is not particular to ourselves but shared with others – which is why you can apply the term to such different things as skateboarding, religion, work songs and ballet, I can haz cheezburger, and performance practices with the power of 100s and 1000s of years, and 100s and 1000s on white bread as a celebratory food. It is why every individual is important, as a vessel, to re-enact and re-experience this experience greater than ourselves, across time. Without us it dies and it is how we, our ancestors and our children, survive death.

With breakfast out of the way, it’s time to go to work. Got to make money for the bank. Got to haul fish up a mountain. Everything’s a metaphor for everything, remember?