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Manu and Borges: The Infinite Chase, Part I


Part 2 can be found here.


"The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books." -Borges

Jorge Luis Borges never wrote a novel. Sure, he read a lot: Borges read libraries' worth and had a love of knowledge of every sort, from epics and religious texts to philosophy and films. And yet, for all the dense, obscure - above all long and many - things he'd read, Borges loved nothing more than a tiny, unnoticed detail: a clever interpretation of something, a strange fable buried on page 78, a paradoxical trait of character in a line that was probably left accidentally by an unwitting author. A smile that shouldn't be there. I'd say most of us as fans notice and love these little occasional details about the Spurs that flesh out their culture, their opponents, their personalities, and their games. The lineups that exist to troll the defensive-minded fan, the offensive rebounding machines that can't hit a shot in ten tries, the inexplicable passivity of Richard Jefferson in passing up his favorite shot with miles of open space. Okay, it's not all love, but you get what I'm saying here, right? The details matter, and the details are fun and give what we're watching on the screen a third dimension (the fourth dimension is PtR and the shared experience of being a fan, right? Heh.)

Borges went a lot further than just about anyone when he loved a detail enough to write about it. Now, he wouldn't just write about any old detail: Above all, the detail had to be something small enough to fit into a paragraph. In the world of ideas, a paragraph with a single idea is sort of the metaphysical equivalent of a shoebox under a bed, something that takes minutes to describe and just seconds to get as a reader. You just open it up and look inside. Borges worked like this: once he'd found his shoebox detail, Borges would carefully but swiftly explode the box's size until the detail was the new fabric of the universe that had once contained it. So already he'd taken you to an completely alternate universe whose one difference was his little detail. All of this in more or less the space of a page.

But he wouldn't stop there. At this point, Borges would ask you - in a maniacal creative laugh - but what's under the bed now? What happened to the original detail? Sure enough, under the alternate bed was an alternate shoebox of the original idea, now warped by the logic of the alternate reality. He'd tell you (with some chuckling omission) what had happened to the original detail in moving to the alternate reality. Then without so much as a second glance, he'd blow up this second detail, until this detail was the fabric of the (now doubly) alternate universe. Then he'd tell you what he'd seen under the third bed, with an even more oblique laugh. And then he'd keep going. In "Inception" parlance, Borges just had to go deeper, down even to limbo.

From a simple idea that the reader could intuit immediately, Borges found a way to produce a maddening hall of infinite mirrors - an entirely sketched-out, completely non-intuitive universe - whose complete exposition is still possible in the space of a quarter-hour. No, he never had an idea big enough to fit into a novel. He never populated the novel's stately, well-furnished house (at least compared to one of his shoeboxes). No, Borges had small ideas that fit into paragraphs, and short stories that fit into tiny rooms. But because of his trick and his craft and his imagination, Borges' small ideas had the weight of big ideas and his conceits the weight of universes.


• • •

You could draw plenty of superficial comparisons between Borges and Manu as individuals. They're obviously both from Argentina (but so are a lot of people). More importantly, they're both pretty down-to-earth: outside of the content of their work, they both seem to have a deep sense of the basic problems of life. Manu and Borges both seem to give things in life the proper weight of importance and amount of time. In the end tally, both Borges and Manu have well-balanced, intelligent, simple perspectives. But so do a lot of people. Then what? How can I reconcile their strange types of genius?

I was having a conversation with J.R. Wilco the other day. He mentioned that one of the weirdest things about a great creator like Nash or Kidd is how they make their teammates completely impossible to judge separate from them. After all, the teammate's initial stats with Nash or Kidd are plagued (from the statistician's perspective) by the extreme situation of being on the court with such transcendent eyes and hands. It's functionally impossible to subtract Nash's stats from those of his teammates. So it's hard to even talk about how good an SSOL player *really is* outside of Nash. You might think you could figure it out by taking them off the Suns, but as J.R. put it, "But that's not really normalizing their stats, either." What he meant by this is that taking a player away from Nash after many years is a fundamental change for that player, like moving from college to the pros: It's a completely different level of difficulty and a utterly separate skillset that the player has to face without Nash. For the rest of his career that player feels like every pass should have led him some six inches more, or been there just an instant sooner, and his efficiency suffers.

It was in this context that I mentioned the dual fact about good shooters: It's amazing how much a good shooter's efficiency suffers if you can just chase them off their spots. I asked J.R. if he'd seen the footage of Dirk warming up in the WCF or the Finals, practicing all those awkward moves and counter-moves. He had: Suffice it to say Dirk - without a defender - was making moves that looked so awkward that Ray Allen - sitting at home - probably turned off his television and got a bad migraine until he spent an afternoon making crisp threes from the wing to forget what he'd seen. It got me to wonder out loud: "What if being a great player isn't about having the best or the most spots, or having a tall, high release? What if being a great player means that being chased off your itself one of your spots?"

And I don't know how, but as I was turned away, a shoebox had appeared under my bed.

• • •

Back to Borges, for the moment.

Borges' famous "Lottery in Babylon" is a great place to start. At the beginning of the story, "Lottery" finds Babylonians drawing lots for the chance at a small prize, just as we do. But unlike us, they have no simple joy in the possibility of winning: In the lottery the people of Babylon only find dramatic power in giving their lives over to chance. That's the shoebox for this story, and I think we can all understand it. How did Borges stretch it out, then? Well - as Borges' Babylonians bored and tired of asymmetry and insignificant lots - they added punishments to the lottery that escalated to jail time. Then they added rewards of power (to balance out the asymmetrical punishment of jail time). As the story proceeds, the Babylonians make endless additions to their lottery (and to the power of "The Company" which runs it), - personalizing the outcomes, nationalizing The Company, giving to a slave that stole a lot, the punishment that the lot demanded. Each of the additions helped the Babylonians to ensure symmetry, indeterminacy, and the ultimate, overriding importance of the dictates of chance. And as they make more and more additions, their society becomes more and more alien to us. What's the point of a lottery - his Babylonians ask themselves at every turn - that isn't perfect? And then - is the natural follow-up - what can we do next to make it more perfect? It's hardly an attitude that we as readers can relate to, at least to that extent.

The Babylonians - in the most absurd addition - add forking paths to the enforcement of the lottery itself (so that, say, you may receive a lot that sentences you to death, but receive a merciful executioner that pardons you). By this point, The Company - in its shadowy nature and its apparent omnipotence - has attained the status of a god. Reading the story, this troubles us, because on the one hand, there should be nothing more alien to us than a universe governed by an an unfamiliar god. The other hand is that despite how incredibly alien the Babylonians have become to us by the end of the story, Borges has treated the development of the lottery in such a clear, consistent, natural way that we end up recognizing our own lots in Babylon: We see the slim chances we take everyday that could cause the loss of property, or a limb, or a life. We see our own slippery holds on, and our own greased paths toward, power and love and respect. We see ourselves falling into the arms of our enemies and we see disreputable acquaintances falling into our own hands, demanding our attention. We know the challenging, sudden reappearance of former lovers and friends after their lots in life have changed dramatically relative to our own.

At the end of the story, Borges' reflective narrator - now free from Babylon - repeats for our benefit some of the Babylonians' blasphemous conjectures about the all-powerful Company: "Another, whispered by masked heresiarchs, says that the Company has never existed, and never will. Another, no less despicable, argues that it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance."


• • •

Basketball condenses into time and space so many aspects of life that it might as well be life on another, weirder planet. Just look at the massive swings of fortune (both immediate and long-term), physical limitations, deterioration of the body, aging, and fatigue. Look at the self-confidence, the achievement, the exaltation, character, love, wisdom, politics and - in the final tally - the objective success and failure. All of it into mashed into one tremendous 48-minute grind. "Pounding the Rock" is a powerful metaphorical sentiment for life but in the context of basketball, it can be taken as a literal, absolute truth, measured in knee-on-knee collisions, free throws and broken bones. The world of basketball - after so many strange additions - might therefore be totally alien to our own world of slow ambivalent compromises and the geologic timescale of getting and using wisdom. Basketball - like one of Borges' realms - forms an imperfect analogy, an infinitely alternate universe that somehow exists within our own that makes plain the forces and details of life that are clouded over by the slowness and indirectness of ordinary life.

• • •

Editor's Note: I hope you've enjoyed the first installment of DewNO's first piece for PtR, which continues here. For more of his work, go to and look up Alex. - JRW