Patrick Madden, a tall man, a good friend, and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, is an erudite essayist who wears his erudition under a baseball cap with a twinkle in his eye, a ploy he learned, perhaps, at the feet of the master, Jorge Luis Borges. He is amiable and exacting, and always an immense pleasure to read. His effort to capture the essay as an ancient and protean form is evident in the amazing website — Quotidiana — an anthology of great essays from the past and a constant reminder that creative nonfiction wasn’t invented in a writing workshop five years ago (or ten). See also his terrific “Dispatches from Montevideo” at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and, of course, his essay collection, also named Quotidiana.
Herewith we offer a tiny essay, a micro-essay, a playful bit of faux erudition, which, as Borges well-knew, most people can’t tell from the real thing. It is an imitation of something that doesn’t exist (endless message loops leading to absence), ever so ironic, parodic and yet shimmering with substance.
I’ve long admired Jorge Luis Borges’s concision, the way he supposes the existence of vast texts (or objects) and writes subtle fictions from them while circumventing the texts/objects themselves. My fragment, “Essay as Evolutionary Advantage,” mimics “On Exactitude in Science,”as a way to say something small yet profound about the important ways essays influence our selves or become ways of seeing and being in the world.
Essay as Evolutionary Advantage (après Borges)
…We may posit a time long ago, when our distant ancestors wandered the savanna in small nomadic groups. Those whose senses observed their surroundings most keenly, and whose minds could assimilate and organize information associatively, assured themselves longer lives and greater opportunities to breed. The rash, the simplistic, the routinary, the self-assured or self-righteous, the easily bored thrill-seeker, these personalities were doomed to superficial interaction and solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives. And what of those whose apprehension of the world was more than utilitarian, who stayed awake nights weaving stories, imagining the implications of every small detail, for whom the world retained its newness no matter how often they’d encountered it?
Cabrera Arias, Breve teoría sobre la evolución humana, Cap. VX, Colón, 1880
Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, was a PEN Center USA finalist. His second book, Sublime Physick, is forthcoming. He curates the amazing Quotidiana, an online anthology of classical essays and contemporary essay resources.
- “On Exactitude in Science” by Jorge Luis BorgesXXXXX…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658↵