Byline: Eric G. Wilson
Five years after I resigned from West Point, a truth happened to me: I learned that to be intellectual means being weird. In college (Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C.), I was still too immured in my fine-young-man upbringing to try on outlandishness. I was staid, applying the inflexible discipline to my studies that I had once applied to football.
I worked 12 hours a day, sometimes more, on Eliot, Wordsworth, Milton, Shakespeare, Donne, Chaucer; turned in papers early, after putting them through three drafts; never missed class, never was late; spoke at least twice during each class discussion; performed eager intellectual behavior, with brow furrowing and knowing nodding; brown nosed the profs; and got what I wanted at that time more than sex or booze - the A.
It wasn't until I reached graduate school that I mustered the guts to get weird. I decided one day in 1991, during my first semester in the Ph.D. program in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, that I would make my mind labyrinthine.
I was sitting in a seminar taught by Angus Fletcher, the most brilliant person I've ever met. I can't remember the course. Doesn't matter, because all the courses Angus taught were really about the mind of Angus, exhilaratingly labyrinthine: baroque, otherworldly, expansive, far out, cosmic, uncanny.
"My trying to be labyrinthine opened me to a deeper appreciation of my past, an appreciation that invigorated my present and energized my future"
It was in Angus's classes that I first read Borges's collection Labyrinths, which includes "Funes the Memorious." The collection also features "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," which is about a translator of Cervantes who immersed himself so deeply into his rendering that he wanted to reproduce, line by line, in the Spanish of Cervantes, the exact Don Quixote itself. "He did not," Borges's narrator writes, "want to compose another Quixote - which is easy - but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide - word for word and line for line - with those of Miguel de Cervantes." According to the narrator, Menard accomplished this.
One day in class, Angus read a passage from Menard's work, in a resonant, slightly hesitant, melancholy yet affirmative voice, after which the class sat in stunned silence, before Angus gave a gentle chuckle, to save us from awkwardness but also to acknowledge that something really wondrous had just occurred. Remarkably, in reading both Borges passages - one by Cervantes, the other by Menard - in exactly the same way, he had captured perfectly their vast distance in depth and meaning. Once he had finished, after pausing a few...